State-owned Nigeria News Agency says about 400 deaths have occurred from meningitis and measles outbreaks in northern Nigeria. Gilbert da Costa in Abuja reports health authorities are scrambling to stop what could become a major meningitis epidemic.

Since the beginning of 2008, an increased number of meningitis cases have been reported in at least 10 northern states, health officials confirmed. And while the region grapples with a deadly measles outbreak, attention is now focused on dealing with a potentially more debilitating meningitis epidemic.

Halliru Idris is the director of disease control in remote Katsina state.

"Every disease has its own season or peak period," said Halliru Idris. "This is the time of meningitis and every serious government or organization should be prepared when something like that comes. We are already prepared. We are embarking on another round of immunization."

Yearly outbreaks of meningitis are reported along the meningitis belt in Africa, which stretches from Senegal in the west to Ethiopia in the east.

Northern Nigeria has experienced different epidemics in the past few years. The region is endemic to waterborne diseases like diarrhea and polio. The situation is aggravated by the low level of immunization, poor hygiene and sanitation.

Tunde Orebiyi of the Nigerian Red Cross says volunteers are helping to minimize the impact of an epidemic.

"We have mobilized volunteers in the states affected to carry out health education, enlightenment campaigns, based on the contingency plans we drew up," said Tunde Orebiyi. "We are also trying to do surveillance and getting data and information concerning the issue. It has not reached serious epidemic proportion. So it is still under control, but you cannot say. You know meningitis, it depends on how people are mobilized and sensitized."

Dust storms, a common feature of the January to April dry season, are blamed for increase in respiratory infections and the spread of meningitis because the bacteria attach to dust particles.

The disease, a potentially deadly infection of the thin lining that surrounds the brain and the spinal cord, can kill unless quickly treated, although it can be controlled through vaccination.