At least 16 people have died in a meningitis epidemic in two districts in northern Uganda over the past three weeks, say health officials.
Amuru District, where the epidemic is spreading fast, has recorded 33 cases with 14 deaths since 24 February, while Oyam District has reported 25 cases with two deaths.
The two districts are just recovering from two decades of Lord’s Resistance Army insurgency which displaced over 1.8 million people and left thousands dead.
“The deadly disease is spreading… The number could be higher as not all come to health facilities,” Charles Okwera, deputy district health officer in Amuru, told IRIN.
“We have stepped up surveillance and alertness following the outbreak. We are doing everything possible to contain the disease.”
The World Health Organization (WHO) in a 21 March statement said 18 suspected cases with three deaths were recorded in three parishes in Pabbo sub-county, Amuru District, while 25 cases including two deaths were recorded in Oyam.
“In Oyam the sample revealed that the causative organism was streptococcus pnuemonie which is a usual bacteria that causes meningitis of the sporadic nature,” said Emmanuel Tenywa, a WHO official in Gulu.
Meningitis is an inflammation of the meninges, the lining surrounding the brain and the spinal cord. It is caused by bacteria and transmitted through contact with respiratory or throat secretions. The most worrying type of meningitis is caused by a bacteria of the subtypes of meningococcal meningitides.
Dust helps meningitis spread
Medical experts say dust, which is common during the dry season, leads to an increase in respiratory infections and helps spread meningitis because the bacteria attach themselves to dust particles, but “the dry season is ending and there should not be much worry,” said Tenywa.
Rukia Nakamatte, a Ministry of Health spokesperson, said an Epidemic Response Team and health experts had been dispatched to the affected districts to contain the outbreak. “We have delivered the necessary drugs and supplies to contain the deadly disease,” Nakamate, told IRIN.
Uganda lies within the African meningitis belt, stretching from Senegal in the west to Ethiopia in the east, according to WHO. The region, experiences meningitis cycles whenever the dry season sets in. While vaccination can significantly reduce mortality, the exact strain of meningitis needs to be identified before vaccines are administered.
Typically, the disease has a mortality rate of 5 to 10 percent, with death occurring within 24 to 48 hours, while some survivors suffer brain damage, hearing loss or learning disabilities.