Meningitis spread prompts donor emergency response

The European Commission's Humanitarian Aid Department (ECHO) has approved US$6.2 million to fight meningitis in Niger and Nigeria – the two most heavily affected countries in West Africa with at least 28,000 suspected cases so far in 2009, according to ECHO. The emergency funding was approved after ECHO’s $2.5 million for infectious disease control in the region in 2009 ran out.

West Africa has had more than 1,800 meningitis deaths in 2009 as of 4 April, with some 32,000 infections, according to ECHO.

Even with early diagnosis and treatment up to 10 percent of patients die, typically within 48 hours of initial symptoms, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Habiba Ahmad, a 28-year-old mother of four in Nigeria’s northern Kano state, told IRIN her three-year-old daughter recovered from meningitis after a two-week hospital stay in March. “However, I am still nervous that one of my [other] three children could get the disease and it would be same nightmare again.”

She said she is grateful for the free treatment but said the government should provide drugs earlier. “The government does not have to wait until someone is infected and taken to the hospital before he is given drugs.”


''...I am still nervous that one of my three children could get the disease and it would be same nightmare again...''

In response to what it has called an “unusually early outbreak” WHO has released 2.3 million meningitis vaccines from its stock to Nigeria and 1.9 million to neighbouring Niger.

The stock programme received requests one month earlier than the typical height of the infection season, according to Alejandro Costa with the Epidemic Readiness and Interventions team.

Unlike for other infectious diseases, the vaccine available for the strain of meningitis common to sub-Saharan Africa is effective for at most five years and is therefore not a part of routine childhood immunisations. WHO recommends mass vaccinations in districts that have at least 10 meningitis infections per 100,000 residents, as well as in surrounding areas.

Kano state, with an estimated population of 9.4 million, has had almost 3,000 reported infections, according to Kano health commissioner, Aisha Isyaku Kiru. She said that despite a “global vaccine scarcity” the state has immunised almost 50,000 people mostly in rural areas and aims to reach 240,000 more.

"Our reason for focusing attention [on] the rural communities is that they have recorded more cases and are more susceptible to meningitis infection due to [a] low level of health awareness," the commissioner told IRIN.

Nationwide infections are most widespread in the north, according to Nigeria’s Ministry of Health.

Since mid-March WHO and aid organisations including Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) have assisted in vaccination campaigns in both Niger and Nigeria. MSF estimates that more than two million people in Niger and at least six million in Nigeria between the ages of two and 30– the highest risk group for infection –require vaccinations.

Ahmad in Kano told IRIN she is waiting to vaccinate her three other children. "I'm really concerned for myself and my children, but I don't have the money to buy the meningitis vaccine from private clinics where they charge as much as 3,000 naira [$20] for a shot."

Meningitis is caused by bacteria that attack the lining of the brain and spinal cord.