March 13, 2007
These mass immunization 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 percent of those infected. Even if the disease is diagnosed early and treated with appropriate antibiotics, the case fatality rate remains five to ten percent. 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 includes 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 state. 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. In addition to the vaccinations, MSF is also supporting efforts to treat people who have contracted the meningitis as well as conduct epidemiological surveillance.
According to the World Health Organization (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.
A risk assessment carried out by the WHO identified several factors indicating that a widespread epidemic could occur in 2007 and 2008. In the mid- to late-1990s, waves of epidemics affected several countries in the meningitis belt, causing 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 11 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 transferring its production to another site. As a result, there will be no capacity to produce additional vaccines this year. This is extremely worrying given that in Nigeria in 1996 more than 13 million people had to be vaccinated over the course of that epidemic.
© 2013 Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)