Meningococcal meningitis is a bacterial infection of the slender lining that envelops the spinal cord and the brain. Even if treated with antibiotics, it has a high mortality rate and a large number of those who do survive it suffer long-term health problems. These include loss of limbs, deafness and epileptic seizures. It is a truly terrible disease and is particularly prevalent in a belt across Africa from the Horn in the east all the way to Senegal in the west.
Although Neisseria meningitides, the bacterium responsible for the African outbreaks, was identified in 1887, it has proved fiendishly difficult to treat or even to predict when epidemics may occur. It is believed that up to a quarter of the population may carry it and since it affects only humans, testing potential treatments has been complicated. What is known is that the disease goes in cycles, with epidemics occurring every ten years or so. The dry season, with its dusty days and cold nights, provides a fertile breeding ground, when widespread coughs allow the bacterium to be passed from one person to the next. Those living at close quarters, such as school children and those on pilgrimages, are particularly vulnerable.
In 1996 Africa suffered its largest outbreak in history. A quarter of a million cases were reported, but the actual number was probably higher. Of those, 25,000 people died and tens of thousands more were left disabled. After this most devastating outbreak, the World Health Organization (WHO) launched a twin approach of preparedness and response. Health centers were set up to monitor outbreaks closely, while a distribution network to provide vaccines swiftly was formed. It is estimated that, if this proper response is made, over two thirds of cases can be avoided.
When was the African Meningitis Outbreak: 1996-1997
Where was the African Meningitis Outbreak: Africa
What was the African Meningitis Outbreak death toll: Around 25,000
You should know: In 2008, health ministers from across the region signed an accord (The Yaounde Declaration) resolving to make such outbreaks a thing of the past through the availability of an effective and affordable vaccine. However, the disease continues to be one of the world’s biggest killers.