- The Covid-19 pandemic disrupted the fight to eradicate meningitis in Africa.
- WHO aims to clear all types of meningitis in Africa by 2030 as 400 million people are at risk.
- The meningitis season in Africa lasts from January to June.
The World Health Organization (WHO) predicts that between now and 2030, R25.5 billion (about US$1.5 billion) will be needed to complete its regional plan to eradicate meningitis in Africa, which if fully implemented, will save more than 140 000 lives and dramatically reduce disability in the region.
The strategy launched last week lays out a roadmap for countries to strengthen diagnosis, monitoring, care, advocacy, and vaccination in order to eradicate outbreaks, reduce fatalities by 70%, and cut infections in half by 2030.
Meningitis is caused by inflammation of the membranes that protect the brain and spinal cord and is spread through sneezing, saliva, or phlegm from an infected person's nose and throat.
Acute bacterial meningitis is one of the most lethal and incapacitating forms of the disease. It can kill within 24 hours of infection and leaves one in every five infected people permanently disabled.
The meningitis season in Africa is exceptionally protracted, lasting from January to June.
Although meningitis affects people of all ages, young children are the most vulnerable, accounting for around half of all cases and deaths in children under the age of five.
Before the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, African countries were doing well in their drive to eradicate meningitis but now more than 400 million people are at a heightened risk of suffering from the disease.
Of those, 50 million are children below the age of 12.
This is because meningitis preventative and control systems, disease surveillance, laboratory confirmation of cases, and outbreak investigations all declined dramatically in the past two years.
Reading from country reports, the WHO said meningitis control activities were reduced by 50% in 2020 compared with 2019.
Notably, Benin, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Nigeria, and Togo delayed campaigns with the MenAfriVac vaccine, the WHO said in a statement.
If not addressed, the disease that was near eradication could make a lethal comeback in a continent where health systems remain fragile.
"In prioritising the response to Covid-19, we must not lose our focus on other health problems. I urge countries to ramp up implementation of the new WHO regional roadmap now, before the meningitis season begins in January 2023," said Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa.
History of meningitis in Africa
In 1996, a meningitis type A outbreak affected over 250 000 people and killed over 25 000 in just a few months.
Since 2010, more than 350 million people in 24 high-risk African nations have received the MenAfriVac vaccine with the help of WHO and partners.
The intensive drive has seen the continent not registering a meningitis type A outbreak in the past five years, but outbreaks still occur and are caused by other types of meningococcal bacteria.
"In 2019, 140 552 people in the African region died from all types of meningitis. Major outbreaks caused by meningitis type C have been recorded in seven meningitis belt countries since 2013," the WHO said.
In 2021 it was reported that 205 people died as a result of a four-month outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Furthermore, the African region has the largest number of new meningitis cases worldwide and is the only region that still has outbreaks.
The continent has the highest incidence of meningitis in the world, with 100 cases per 100 000 people.
Dr Moeti estimates that nearly half a million people are at risk of contracting meningitis in Africa.
"More than 400 million Africans are still at risk of seasonal meningitis outbreaks, but the disease has remained off the radar for too long," she said.
The News24 Africa Desk is supported by the Hanns Seidel Foundation. The stories produced through the Africa Desk and the opinions and statements that may be contained herein do not reflect those of the Hanns Seidel Foundation