At least 489 people have died from a meningitis outbreak in Nigeria, according to Nigeria's Minister of Health Isaac Adewole.
During an emergency health meeting in the Nigerian state of Kaduna, Adewole said most of the victims are children aged 5 to 14.
Local and international health workers met with traditional rulers from Nigeria’s predominantly Muslim northern region to discuss how to contain and stop the outbreak. Northern Nigeria’s traditional Islamic rulers wield enormous influence. Many people trust them over government officials. These rulers have been instrumental in dispelling false myths about the polio vaccine, helping to eradicate polio in the north.
More than 4,000 meningitis cases have been recorded since the outbreak began in December, hitting the country’s poor northern region the hardest. While meningitis outbreaks are not uncommon in Nigeria, this C strain of the disease is fairly new, according to the head of Nigeria’s Center for Disease Control, Dr. Chikwe Ihekweazu.
“Meningitis C was fairly rare in our context until 2013, 2014, thereabouts. Meningitis A was the dominant group by a lot, a huge margin all over West Africa,” Ihekweazu tells VOA. “As far as Meningitis C, it’s probably the worst we’ve seen. It’s a fairly serious one. This particular strain we’ve found it in five states only.”
The disease is killing people who live in communities where access to hospitals is low and poverty is high. In poor northern neighborhoods families are usually polygamous with several children. Relatives are packed into small homes with little ventilation. Meningitis A and C are bacterial infections spread by saliva and close physical contact.
Vaccinations in Abuja
The Nigerian capital, Abuja, in central Nigeria has reported six suspected Meningitis deaths, and Niger state, which neighbors Abuja, has reported 16 cases. Health authorities in Abuja have administered more than 70,000 doses of Meningitis A and C vaccine.
“When we heard, we started collecting and we starting vaccinating. We are very careful, because this is national federal capital territory. People are coming in and out. It’s about 9.5 percent growth rate. It’s really a peak place where infections can be transferred easily,” says Dr. Rilwanu Mohammed, the executive secretary of the Federal Capital Territory Primary Health Care Development Board.
The immunization campaign is targeting high-risk populations, like people who have fled their homes in northeastern Nigeria in fear of Boko Haram. About 65,000 of them are living in camps across Abuja. Health workers are also targeting motor parks, the prison that sits on the outskirts of the city, and Nigerian military barracks.
Vaccine running short
It’s a robust immunization aim, but there is not enough vaccine. Health workers are facing the reality of a global shortage of Meningitis C vaccine.
The allocation given to Abuja by the federal government of Nigeria ran out about a week ago. This year, the World Health Organization gave Nigeria 500,000 doses of the Meningitis A and C vaccine, but that stock is nearly gone. An additional 800,000 doses of conjugate Meningitis C vaccine from the British government is expected soon, most to sent to the northwestern state of Sokoto.
Zamfara state, where the outbreak began, says it needs three million doses.
“If we had all the currently available global stock of vaccine, it will not be enough to provide immunity for Nigeria alone. We really need to plan more aggressively but we need the world to help us. We need to increase global production and reduce prices. The best vaccine we have at the moment, the polyvalent conjugate vaccine cost close to $50 a dose,” Dr. Ihekweazu says.
Ihekweazu says it’s unaffordable for Nigeria and other West African countries. He suggests strong global advocacy to reduce the price.
A treatable disease
Dr. Ikekweazu says Meningitis is a bacterium that lives with people in West Africa, where nearly 20 percent of the population carrys a Meningitis strain in the respiratory tract. But people don’t always get sick. When someone does get sick the disease inflames tissue around the brain and spinal cord. Meningitis is treatable, but survivors may live with long-term or even permanent medical disabilities, such as visual impairment and neurological dysfunction. The World Health Organization says the disease is fatal in 50 percent of cases, if untreated.
Meningitis rates are highest in a region stretching from Senegal in westernmost Africa to Ethiopia in the east.
The 2015 outbreak of Meningitis C killed 1,100 people and sickened more than 10,000 in Nigeria and neighboring Niger. More than 2,000 people died from the A strain of the disease in 2009. In 1996, more than 1,000 cases were recorded, mostly in northern Nigeria.
Nigerians have turned to social media for public health advocacy. The hashtag Meningitis is trending in Nigeria’s Twitter space as public officials and concerned citizens discuss how to handle the epidemic.
Health Minister Adewole used Twitter to denounce the actions of health workers who are charging people for the Meningitis C immunization. Adewole says the immunization is supposed to be free of charge, provided by the Nigerian federal government.