UN agency coordinates mass campaign to fight meningitis in four African countries
The United Nations health agency is coordinating a mass vaccination and treatment campaign to combat meningitis outbreaks in four African countries that have already killed 1,670 people and infected nearly 16,000 others with a disease which can result in brain damage, hearing loss or learning disability in 10 to 20 per cent of survivors.
Of the four countries affected – Burkina Faso, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Uganda – the two last are at the extreme south of the so-called Meningitis Belt stretching from Senegal in the West to Ethiopia in the East, an area with an estimated population of 300 million people, the UN World Health Organization (WHO) said in a news release today.
“WHO and partners recommend reactive mass vaccinations targeted at the highest risk groups, usually people between the ages of 2-30 years,” it added. “Every district that is in an epidemic phase, as well as adjoining districts that are in the alert phase, should be targeted for vaccination. It is estimated that a mass immunization campaign, promptly implemented, can prevent 70 per cent of cases.”
Meningitis bacteria, which affect the lining surrounding the brain and spinal cord, are transmitted from person to person through droplets of respiratory or throat secretions.
Close and prolonged contact such as kissing, sneezing and coughing, and sharing eating or drinking utensils, facilitates the spread. Symptoms include stiff neck, high fever, sensitivity to light, confusion, headaches and vomiting.
WHO and the non-governmental organization (NGO) Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) are working together to contain the outbreak and the International Coordinating Group on Vaccine Provision for Epidemic Meningitis, comprising UN agencies and their partners, has so far released more than 1.6 million doses of vaccine.
Some 1.5 million people in the affected counties have been targeted in mass vaccination campaign organized by the national authorities, WHO, MSF and other NGOs. The affected areas are known to host large numbers of returnees, as well as displaced populations living in areas not easily accessible and dispersed population settlements.
The ICG has secured some 8 million doses as an emergency stockpile, of which 5.5 million are currently available. Despite concerns about a shortage of vaccine, WHO estimates that some 15 million doses are still available on the market, which countries can buy. To rapidly address a potential shortage, WHO has identified which manufacturers can quickly scale up supply in the short and medium term.
WHO and its partners are also providing drugs for case management. Prompt treatment with oily chloramphenicol helps control epidemics.