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Bulletin of the World Health Organization

Print version ISSN 0042-9686

Bull World Health Organ vol.80 n.12 Genebra Jan. 2002 

Agencies sound the alarm for new strain of meningitis in Africa

The next meningitis outbreak in Africa could be less than two months away. The International Federation of the Red Cross, Médecins Sans Frontières, UNICEF and WHO have made an urgent appeal for the 10 million Euros needed to stockpile the vaccine and drugs that can prevent or limit it. Without this revolving stock, countries hit by a meningitis epidemic are left to deal with it alone, which would result in thousands of preventable deaths.

Meningitis outbreaks occur almost every year in the African meningitis belt, which stretches from Ethiopia in the east to Senegal in the west. In 2002 there were 33 000 cases and 2500 deaths. In the past 10 years there have been 700 000 deaths from this disease. Unless they are treated, half of those infected by it progress from headache and nausea to neurological damage, coma and death.

This year a strain known as W135, which had previously been responsible only for sporadic cases in Africa, was the main cause of an outbreak in Burkina Faso. Between February and June of this year 12 000 people in Burkina Faso were infected and 1500 of them died, most of them as a result of the W135 strain. The only vaccine currently available to provide protection against this strain is a tetravalent one manufactured largely for sale in rich countries and those sending pilgrims to Saudi Arabia on the Hadj. It costs US$ 4–50 a dose, which is far beyond the means of the affected countries in Africa. Talks with manufacturers are progressing towards providing a stock of affordable vaccine against the W135 strain – at US$ 1 or less.