The U.N. Children's Fund says that countries in West Africa are experiencing the worst meningitis epidemic in more than five years and are in need of vaccines and antibiotics.

Almost 50,000 cases of meningitis have been reported in four West African countries and more than 2,500 people have died since the epidemic broke out at the beginning of this year.

Nigeria is the hardest hit with over 1,000 deaths, and Niger, Burkina Faso and Chad are also experiencing epidemic levels.   Central African Republic, Côte d'Ivoire, Mali and Togo have reported cases as well.

Meningitis is an annual occurrence in an area stretching across sahelian Africa from Senegal to Ethiopia that has the highest burden of meningococcal disease in the world.  But this year, the outbreak is much worse.

Martin Dawes is Communications Chief for West and Central Africa at UNICEF.

"What we are talking about is the so-called meningitis belt of Sahelian Africa," said Martin Dawes. "With a number of countries now reporting a large number of cases.  It is hitting earlier, faster and harder than we have known for at least five years."

Meningitis attacks the lining of the brain.  According to the World Health Organization up to 10 percent of patients die from the disease and most survivors are left with irreversible neurological consequences.  The bacterial form of the disease is highly contagious and transmitted through coughing and sneezing.

Dawes says unusual weather this year has contributed to spread of the epidemic.

"It is colder, people are getting more respiratory infections, it is dusty dry and cold," he said. "People are sneezing and coughing that is the ideal conditions for this particular condition to spread.  So we are worried about it spreading further - there needs to be mass vaccinations both where it is happening and the areas around it."

But Dawes says that more vaccines and antibiotics are needed.  Global stocks of the meningitis vaccine are low and some countries have none at all.

In Chad where meningitis drugs are not currently available, one in 10 people are infected with the disease die.

Dawes says governments need to take more responsibility in preparing themselves for disease outbreaks expected every year.

"It is a recognized seasonal problem, but there is also an issue of governance - needing to make sure that their preparedness is better," said Dawes. "They need to have better and more trained health personnel on the ground, knowing what is happening in the populations."

The largest recorded outbreak of meningitis killed more than 25,000 people in Africa in 1996.