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Alarming early meningitis outbreak hits Africa

The highly infectious airborne disease usually strikes in the continent’s ‘meningitis belt’, which stretches from Senegal to Ethiopia, during the dry season, with most cases reported in mid-April. But over the past fortnight, health ministries in the region’s high-risk countries reported 2,298 cases, with a 13 per cent death rate.  The biggest number of cases, was in Burkina Faso, said the United Nations news services, IRIN. But the highest number of deaths from the epidemic is in Togo, where 25 of 108 people who caught the disease died. The situation is ‘alarming,’ said the World Health Organization (WHO).

In the world’s poorest countries, such as Africa, bacterial meningitis causes massive epidemics that affect whole communities and disable or kill many of their children and young people. This is in spite of the fact that vaccinating people can mostly prevent bacterial meningitis. An expert in infectious diseases and meningitis for the WHO said the reason why infections were spreading earlier than expected is still not known. "This [timing] is a sign of a major epidemic risk if no action is taken," Mamoudou Harouna Djingarey warned. He said widespread meningitis outbreaks tend to come every eight to 10 years, but were now happening about every four years.

Studies are being done to find out whether climate and environmental factors might be driving the epidemic. Infections have been reported further south than usual, including in Uganda, Kenya and Democratic Republic of Congo. Last year in meningitis season, 14 African countries reported 78,416 suspected cases, including 4,053 deaths, the largest number since an epidemic in 1996. Meningococcal meningitis happens in small clusters across the world and varies with changing seasons. In the worst hit meningitis belt, during the dry season between December to June, dust winds, cold nights and chest infections raise people’s risk of catching the disease. Meanwhile, overcrowded housing and large numbers of homeless people help it spread. This combination of factors explains the large epidemics, which occur during the dry season in the meningitis belt. Burkina Faso

Last week, Burkina Faso’s health ministry reported 1,251 cases, with a 15 per cent fatality rate. This time last year, there were 25 percent less infections, but a similar proportion of people died from it. Everyone aged between two and 29, who lives in an epidemic zone should be vaccinated the WHO recommends, as well as people in nearby areas that are on "alert". 

By Hayley Jarvis for SOS Children