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UNICEF Launches Effort to Contain Rwanda Meningitis Epidemic - 2002-08-23

The United Nations Children's Fund, UNICEF, has begun a mass vaccination campaign in Rwanda in a bid to contain a meningitis epidemic that threatens more than one-million people. UNICEF says at least 65 deaths and more than 400 suspected cases of meningitis have been reported so far.

UNICEF says the outbreak started in Butare province in southwest Rwanda, and now has spread to Kibungo province in the eastern part of the country. UNICEF Spokeswoman, Wivina Belmonte, says a total of 1,180,000 people are at risk. She says half of them are children under 18.

"There is a clear concern about this getting worse, because we have got three other districts that are on alert," she explained. "There are four that have already declared as having reached epidemic status. So, obviously, there is a concern about this spreading even more widely than it has already. We are vaccinating everyone. We are vaccinating more than one-million people, adults and children. So, that, too, underlines the extent of the concern."

Ms. Belmonte says UNICEF is trying to contain the disease in the two provinces where it exists. The agency already has supplied 150,000 doses of vaccine. A much larger supply of more than one-half-million doses, plus syringes and antibiotics, is expected to arrive in Rwanda on Tuesday.

Ms. Belmonte says the number of reported cases and deaths probably underestimates the full extent of the outbreak. She says cases and deaths from meningitis are likely to go unreported because they occur in remote communities.

Meningococcal meningitis is a life-threatening disease. Children are most at risk. Countries in sub-Saharan Africa are prone to outbreaks, especially during the dry season. UNICEF says it currently is responding to similar outbreaks in Burundi, and is closely monitoring the situation in neighboring Tanzania.