The first meningitis cases were reported in January, but it was not until February that the epidemic threshold was crossed – this is when more than 10 new cases are diagnosed every week within a population of 100,000 people. It is the south of Chad that has been hardest hit, in particular the districts of Laokassi, Moundou, Melfi, Kelo, Benoy and Kroumla.
Meningitis is a serious bacterial infection that strikes during the dry season, when people’s nasal mucus becomes too dry to act as an effective barrier against bacteria. This natural protection does not usually return until the middle of May, or sometimes as late as June, with the arrival of the rainy season. If it goes untreated, the illness is fatal in 50 percent of cases, while 30 percent of survivors suffer serious neurological effects or are left without their hearing.
“After she got home, Fatima fell down onto her right side. She was speaking but what she said made no sense,” explained her elder sister Zenaba. “We were terrified – we thought she was going mad.”
In the districts of Kelo and Koumra, MSF has set up temporary meningitis support units in local hospitals to help treat those patients with complications. These include patients suffering from convulsions, respiratory complications, or those who have become comatose. The support units contain between 40 and 70 beds. In other districts, MSF has focused on introducing protocols for the diagnosis and treatment of meningitis in local health centres. Antibiotics have been distributed to health facilities throughout the area so that patients have access to treatment as near to home as possible.Fatima was treated at a meningitis support centre set up by MSF in Kelo to help tackle the epidemic. Most of the centre’s patients are children and Fatima is no exception: she is just 12 years old. It is rare for anyone over 30 to contract the disease. Fatima has now left hospital, having made a full recovery, and – apart from mild fatigue – has not suffered any longterm effects.
Alongside these measures, a vaccination campaign has been launched to help control the epidemic. Vaccines have been provided by the Chadian Ministry of Health, while MSF has arranged 90 vaccination teams made up of a combination of Ministry of Health staff and MSF employees. As of April 6, 2011, more than 607,000 people have been vaccinated against meningitis. The teams intend to vaccinate another 103,000 people in Koumra by the end of April.
“The population here has responded very well to the vaccination campaign, and we have received a great deal of support from local authorities, who have been helping us to assemble people at vaccination sites,” said Matteo, an MSF logistician. “People are well aware of the risks that meningitis sufferers face. When we arrived in the area, the epidemic had already taken hold, and some people had already lost loved ones to it.”
Thanks to the vaccine, the people of Laokassi, Moundou, Melfi, Kelo, Benoye and Kroumla should be protected against the disease for the next three years. Nonetheless, for the inhabitants of a country where meningitis is endemic, such as Chad, the new vaccine, which offers five years’ protection, cannot come soon enough.