Meningitis kills 1,100 West Africans30th March 2009
The World Health Organisation (WHO) is reporting a large meningitis epidemic in West Africa, where 1,100 people have died since the beginning of the year.
Fully one third of the world’s meningitis vaccines have been dispatched in a coordinated response to the epidemic.
Meningitis is a disease that attacks the lining of the brain and spinal cord, causing the brain to swell.
The symptoms of meningitis include fever, sensitivity to light, a stiff neck, confusion, and headaches.
Fadela Chaib, a spokeswoman for the UN, said that the current epidemic is the biggest that countries in West Africa have faced in the past five years, where infection rates tend to rise during the first five months of the year when the humidity is low.
Climatically, the disease spreads best when dust winds and cold nights attack the health of the upper respiratory tract, mainly through coughs, sneezes, kisses, and shared eating utensils.
Last week, a total of 171 people died in Nigeria alone, and another 30 in Niger.
Some 85% of this year’s cases are thought to be concentrated in the two countries.
With the other countries factored in, the WHO counts 25,000 suspected cases this year in the world’s ‘meningitis belt’, out of 300 million people thought to be at risk of catching the disease.
The ‘meningitis belt’ stretches across Africa from Senegal to Ethiopia, and 4 million doses of the vaccine have been sent in response to the prevalence of the disease.
The large number of doses represents a sizeable chunk of the world’s emergency stockpile of 13 million doses.
Chaib said that the WHO will need a large amount of vaccines, and that the stockpile of vaccines is limited.
The largest recorded outbreak of meningitis in the meningitis belt occurred over 10 years ago, from 1996 to 1997.
During that year, roughly 100,000 people in Nigeria and 50,000 people in Niger were infected with the disease.
Within 24-48 hours of the onset of symptoms, about 5-10% of meningitis patients die, even with quick diagnosis and therapy.
Meanwhile, up to 20% of people who survive a bacterial meningitis infection incur brain damage, learning disabilities, and loss of hearing.
Last year, the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation pledged millions of dollars to purchase vaccines for use in Africa.
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