— Meningitis has infected nearly 16,000 people and killed 1670 in sub-Saharan Africa in the past two months, despite an extensive vaccination campaign, the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Friday.
The agency is working with the humanitarian organisation Médecins Sans Frontiéres (MSF) to contain the outbreak, which is killing more than one-tenth of those infected in Burkina Faso, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan and Uganda.
Spread by coughing and sneezing, meningitis is an infection of the thin lining that surrounds the brain and spinal cord.
David Olsen, medical adviser at MSF in New York, US, says that youngsters who survive a severe attack might suffer from permanent brain damage, hearing loss or coordination problems. Children are the most vulnerable to the after-effects of meningitis.
Some 1.5 million people in the four affected countries have been targeted by mass vaccination campaigns, though large numbers of displaced people and those living in remote areas have presented a challenge, the WHO says. A mass vaccination campaign in Burkina Faso, launched in March, hit a snag after it ran out of vaccines, forcing the government to launch an international appeal for fresh supplies.
According to WHO estimates, during 2006 there were about 40,000 cases in the meningitis belt that stretches across the continent from Senegal to Ethiopia. Olsen worries that there have already been nearly one-third as many cases reported in the first two months of the dry season this year.
Outbreaks of meningitis are worse during the dry season because the dust and cold can irritate the respiratory system, making it vulnerable to infection. Olsen expects the outbreak to pick up speed through June 2007.
He says that both malnutrition and displacement of people have contributed to the current outbreak. And because the last large outbreak of meningitis in the region occurred a decade ago, many youngsters do not have immunity from previous infection or from vaccination.
Doctors also fear that if the outbreak continues there might not be enough vaccine available to protect people. The WHO estimates that there are about 15 million doses of the vaccine for this type of meningitis available on the market, in addition to roughly 6 million doses that relief organisations currently have.
Olsen estimates up to 80 million doses of vaccine might be required in a worst-case scenario. He says that talks with vaccine producers are under way to address this issue.
However, Gregory Hartl, a WHO spokesperson in Geneva, Switzerland, believes that the vaccine supply will be sufficient: We probably have enough for this year. But if it goes on like this we might not have enough for future years. He says drug companies might have to scale up their production for future years if the number of meningitis outbreaks increases.
He stresses that the global community should not lose sight of the importance of dealing with these infections. Basically people forget that meningitis is such a big problem.
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