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Meningitis Outbreak Grips Sub-Saharan Africa

The World Health Organization says Sub-Saharan Africa is in the grips of a meningitis outbreak. It says the two West African countries of Niger and Nigeria are the most heavily affected.

The World Health Organization reports nearly 25,000 suspected cases of meningitis, including more than 1,500 deaths, have been reported during the first 11 weeks of this year. WHO says 85 percent of the cases and deaths have occurred in Northern Nigeria and Niger.

WHO spokeswoman, Fadela Chaib, says the bulk of the cases originate from 16 Northern States of Nigeria. She says the so-called meningitis belt stretches from Senegal in the west to Ethiopia in the east, with an estimated total of 300 million people at risk.

What is unusual about this epidemic, she says, is the large number of cases occurring in Northern Nigeria. "We know that meningitis is common in countries like Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad, Ethiopia…But, it is the first time that we have so many cases in Northern Nigeria and what we can do is to strengthen the surveillance of cases, to strengthen also the laboratory capacities and to vaccinate around the district where these cases have been identified," she said.

This is meningitis season in Sub-Saharan Africa. The disease usually occurs during the dry season between January and May every year. It is highly contagious and is spread by a bacteria transmitted from person to person, through droplets of respiratory or throat secretions. The average incubation period is four days, ranging between two and 10 days.

WHO says meningitis is potentially fatal and should always be viewed as a medical emergency. Fadela Chaib notes the disease can be treated in the early stages with antibiotics. "One of our concerns is the fact that we will need large amount of vaccines to be able to vaccinate around in the districts where these cases have been identified and the stockpile is a limited one," he said.

Currently, WHO says there are more than 12 million doses of meningitis vaccine in the emergency stockpile. About one-third of these doses have been released to Nigeria and Niger.

Chaib says the global vaccine supply remains limited so it is a challenge to figure out the best way to allocate the vaccine to areas most at risk.