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Aid Agencies Warn of African Meningitis Outbreak - 2002-11-05

International aid agencies fear thousands of people in sub-Saharan Africa could die of meningitis over the coming months unless the agencies get needed vaccines. They have launched an emergency appeal for $10 million to prepare for the meningitis outbreak, which they say could be less than two months away

The aid agencies say thousands of people will die of meningitis unless they are able to rebuild their stockpile of vaccine and drugs before the epidemic strikes.

Meningitis outbreaks occur almost every year in the so-called African meningitis belt, which stretches from Ethiopia in the east to Senegal in the west. About 300 million people live in the region.

This year, international health experts say it will be harder than usual to deal with an outbreak because of a new strain of meningitis that was introduced into Africa earlier this year.

A health expert from the group Doctors Without Borders, Bernard Pecoul, says the vaccine needed to treat the new strain is prohibitively expensive.

"The cost of the new tetravalent vaccines is between $4 to $50 per dose in rich countries, which brings the vaccines out of reach of the most affected people," he says.

An expert on communicable disease for the World Health Organization, Mike Ryan, says if the vaccines arrive in time they will save thousands of lives.

"We can prevent much of this disease through vaccination," he says. "Those we cannot prevent, we can reduce case fatality rates to less than 10 percent with an effective antibiotic given in time."

The World Health Organization and other aid agencies say they are trying to persuade pharmaceutical companies to provide a stock of affordable vaccine against W-135, as the new strain of meningitis is called. They say they are making good progress and a solution is within reach.