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WHO Working to Stave Off Meningitis Outbreak in Africa

The World Health Organization is about to ship millions of doses of a new meningitis vaccine to nearly two dozen countries in Africa. The vaccine was developed in record time to tackle a new, deadlier strain of the disease.

Officials of the World Health Organization say they will soon begin sending three million doses of the meningitis vaccine to 21 African countries. All the countries are part of the so-called meningitis belt, which stretches from Senegal to Ethiopia.

The health organization says the first shipment, made up of 100,000 doses, is being sent to Burkina Faso. That is where an epidemic of the new, deadlier strain of meningitis, known as W-135, has been detected.

WHO officials say almost 1,400 cases of the new disease have been confirmed in Burkina Faso, and 244 people have died.

Chris Nelson, a scientist at the World Health Organization, said there is no doubt Burkina Faso is in the grips of a meningitis epidemic. "We have known for maybe one week that, perhaps, something is going to happen in Burkina, and, as a result, we worked harder to get the vaccines staged, so we can ship them, if necessary," he said. "We worked hard to make sure the [systems] to keep the case fatality rates down has been in place. We worked hard, actually since November, to make sure the surveillance systems are strengthened and to make sure the correct personnel are in place."

Meningitis is a bacterial disease that mostly affects children. It can cause serious neurological damage, deafness, coma and death. Without proper treatment, many of its victims will die.

The new strain of meningitis appeared for the first time in Africa last year. In Burkina Faso alone, nearly 15,000 people were infected and more than 1,700 died.

The new vaccine was developed by the British drug firm GlaxoSmithKline. It costs $1.50 a dose, which is much cheaper than the vaccine that was previously used, which could cost as much as $50 a dose.