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Health Authorities Signal Increase in Meningitis Cases in West Africa

International relief and health authorities have raised the alarm of an increase in meningitis cases across West Africa. Jade Heilmann in our West Africa bureau in Dakar reports that nearly 300 cases have been found this year in Burkina Faso.

International relief authorities note an increase in cases of meningitis in Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger and Nigeria since the end of 2007. Burkina Faso seems to be the most affected where the disease has claimed the lives of 52 people in the first two weeks of 2008, according to the U.N.'s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

The World Health Organization says if there are at least 10 new cases of the disease each week for every 100,000 inhabitants in one health district, this qualifies as an epidemic.

Although the outbreaks have not yet reached this threshold, the OCHA says it wants to alert the public to the worrisome trend.

Elizabeth Byrs is a spokeswoman for OCHA in Geneva. She says waiting longer would be dangerous.

"It is better to send an alert right now than waiting for months until the outbreak is becoming more difficult to mitigate," she noted.

Last year, West Africa suffered from an epidemic that killed 2,000 people across nine countries. Byrs says the point of the alert is to prevent it from happening again this year.

"We hope this year we will not see such an outbreak, but it is an alert, for our partners: NGOs [non-governmental organizations], U.N. agencies and also country donors in order to get all contributions and financial support needed to respond to the situation," she said.

Burkina Faso's health authorities have already bought one million doses of meningitis vaccine. Niger's government has vaccinated 34,000 people. Byrs says governments are doing their best, but still need outside help.

"They need support in order to monitor the situation and to have a common plan of response to better address the needs of the population," she said.

The International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies has been implementing a series of preparedness measures in 14 African countries since the end of 2007.

Byrs says the most important measure is to vaccinate people.

Meningococcal meningitis is the only bacterial form of the disease that can evolve into an epidemic. It is an infection of the fluid in the spinal cord and the membranes surrounding the brain. It is characterized by high fever, a stiff neck and vomiting.

Infants are the most vulnerable, but adolescents and adults can also be affected. Unlike the viral forms of meningitis, bacterial forms requires emergency care.