Over 1.5 million across Africa to be immunised against meningitis

MSF fears the world health system is woefully under-prepared as indicators are pointing to a serious outbreak along the lines of those in the mid- to late-1990s which caused upwards of 25,000 deaths in three years.

During the past weeks, teams from Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) assisted in the vaccination of over 860,000 people against meningitis, a contagious and potentially fatal infection of the brain membrane.

These mass immunisation campaigns have taken place across large swathes of northern Uganda, southern Sudan and the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), countries which make up part of what is traditionally known as the 'Meningitis Belt', which stretches from Senegal in the west of Africa to Ethiopia in the east. The total population at risk in these countries is around 300 million.

Without treatment, bacterial meningitis kills up to 50 per cent of those infected. Even if the disease is diagnosed early and treated with appropriate antibiotics, the case fatality rate remains five to ten per cent. As many as one out of five survivors will suffer from neurological after-effects such as deafness or mental retardation.

In southern Sudan, MSF is currently in the process of vaccinating a further 528,000 people, mostly under the age of 30, bringing the total number vaccinated to over one million. The latest round of vaccinations include around 160,000 people in Juba, the capital of southern Sudan and over a quarter of a million in the north of Bahr-El-Ghazal province.

In addition to the planned vaccination of a further 600,000 people in the West African state of Burkina Faso, assessments are being carried out in a number of areas and teams are on alert in other countries where outbreaks are feared.

The UN has announced that eight West African states have also been struck by outbreaks of the disease. The worst hit, with 324 deaths recorded by March 5, is Burkina Faso. During the next week, MSF is planning to launch a vaccination campaign for over 600,000 people around the capital, Ouagadougou.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), in southern Sudan alone, nearly 200 people have died as a result of meningitis and the disease has already hit eight states, in comparison to only four during the outbreak of 2006.

MSF fears the world health system is woefully under-prepared as indicators are pointing to a serious outbreak along the lines of those in the mid- to late-1990s which caused upwards of 25,000 deaths in three years. Yet today, there are just 25 million doses of A/C vaccine&#–the A strain being the most common cause of epidemics&#–available worldwide, of which only 7 million doses have been reserved for epidemic responses.

The future prospects for replenishing the supply are bleak. In May, Sanofi-Pasteur, the sole provider of the A/C vaccine, announced that it was stopping production altogether while it transfers its production to another site. As a result, there will be no capacity to produce additional vaccines this year.

Given that in Nigeria in 1996, more than 13 million people had to be vaccinated over the course of that epidemic, the potential for a huge number of preventable deaths this year is quite real.