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Health Officials Say Meningitis Ravaging Northern Nigeria

Health officials are reporting an outbreak of meningitis in northern Nigeria, which has claimed more than 60 lives, so far. Nigeria lies in the "meningitis belt" that stretches across the continent, from Senegal in the west to Ethiopia in the east.

January 2009, meningitis cases have been reported in virtually every state in northern Nigeria. The most affected states are Gombe, Kano, Katsina and Bauchi.

The current outbreak is said to be the worst since 1996. Health officials say more deaths are expected.

Yearly outbreaks of meningitis occur during the dry season, between January and May.

The disease - a potentially deadly infection of the thin lining that surrounds the brain and the spinal cord - can kill unless quickly treated, although it can be controlled through vaccination.

Gombe state, in the northeastern region, has confirmed 33 deaths from meningitis since January. Health Commissioner Muhammad Isa Umar says stockpiling vaccines presents some challenges.

"What we feel we have to do is to make sure that we have enough vaccines so that, at the time we are anticipating such outbreaks, we should be able to carry out mass immunization campaigns. But that is also very, very difficult because there are so many different types of micro organisms that can cause these attacks," he said. "And, it is also difficult to predict which type; even with the bacteria it is difficult to predict which particular type and to make sure that you have enough stock of the vaccine that would be effective."

The northern part of Nigeria has been experiencing different types of epidemics in the past few years. The north is endemic to waterborne diseases such as diarrhea and vomiting, measles and polio. In the past few weeks some northern states have reported outbreaks of Lassa Fever.

Last month, the Nigerian health ministry placed the northern part of the country on a state of high alert following a meningitis outbreak in neighboring Republic of Niger.