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Africa Faces Serious Meningitis Epidemic

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies is launching a prevention campaign in 14 countries in Africa to get ready for, what it says, could be one of the worst meningitis epidemics in a decade. The countries include Ethiopia, Kenya, Sudan, Uganda, Burkina-Faso, Democratic Republic of Congo, Niger, Mali, Chad, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Togo and Benin. Lisa Schlein reports for VOA from Red Cross headquarters in Geneva.

The Red Cross is launching this campaign in response to a stark warning given by the World Health Organization in early October. The World Health Organization warned that a meningitis epidemic could appear as early as February.

Meningitis is a yearly occurrence in Africa. The disease thrives in dry weather. The World Health Organization made its prediction based on weather forecasts that indicate Africa is in for a severe drought next year.

Red Cross Senior Public Health Emergencies Officer Jari Vainio explains meningitis spreads through coughing, and when the Sahara winds come up, the dust spreads the germs far and wide.

He tells VOA about 25,000 volunteers are being trained to carry out the four-month prevention campaign in 14 countries located in the so-called meningitis belt.

"We have already started the project. We started a little bit earlier in Burkina Faso because Burkina Faso is a country, which will be totally affected by meningitis because it lies within the meningitis belt," said Vainio. "While other countries like Ghana and Nigeria, only the northern part of the country are involved."

Dr. Vainio says meningitis is one of the most feared epidemic diseases in Africa because of its rapid onset, high fatality rates, and long-term impacts. For instance, it can cause brain damage and deafness.

He says it is difficult to predict the severity of the upcoming epidemic. But, he says it could be worse than the one that hit Africa in 1996. He notes in that year Sudan had 250,000 cases of the disease and 25,000 people died.

An effective vaccine against meningitis exists. But, Dr. Vainio says only about 7 million doses of vaccine are available for a potentially affected population of 80 million.

"So, our particular preventive campaign is now more about education, advocacy, going house to house to people and explaining to them about the dangers," added Dr. Vainio. "And, also about people going for early treatment, as there is a treatment available."

Dr. Vainio says meningitis is difficult to detect because early symptoms like headaches or fever are common in other diseases. Therefore, he says, it is crucial for communities to be aware of the danger.

He says people can take very simple hygienic measures to help prevent meningitis from spreading. For example, he says they can cover their mouths when coughing and wash their hands.