Immunization, Vaccines and Biologicals

The Meningitis Vaccine Project - frequently asked questions

In collaboration with the Meningitis Vaccine Project and PATH
6 December 2010

The disease

What is meningococcal disease?

Meningitis is an infection of the meninges, the thin lining that surrounds the brain and the spinal cord. It is usually caused by a virus or bacterium (meningococcus). It is transmitted through droplets of respiratory or throat secretions. Bacterial meningitis, such as meningococcal disease, can be very serious because it evolves rapidly and can kill in a few hours. Even with appropriate treatment, around10% of patients die, and up to 20% of survivors have serious permanent health problems as a result of the disease (deafness, epilepsy, cerebral palsy or mental retardation).

What is the extent of meningococcal disease in Africa?

Sub-Saharan Africa has been experiencing explosive and repeated meningococcal epidemics for more than a hundred years. Group A meningococcus is the main cause of meningitis epidemics and accounts for an estimated 80% to 85% of all cases. These deadly epidemics occur at intervals of 7–14 years in the 25 countries of the "meningitis belt," a strip of land that extends from Senegal in the west to Ethiopia in the east. Around 450 million people in this area are at risk of disease.

More than one million cases of meningitis have been reported in Africa since 1988. In 1996-1997, the largest epidemic wave ever recorded swept across Africa, causing more than 250 000 cases and 25 000 deaths.