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Meningitis epidemic currently sweeping through sub-Saharan Africa

21 April 2009 -- Meningitis is an infection of the meninges, the thin lining that surrounds the brain and the spinal cord. It is epidemic prone, and this episode discusses the transmission of the disease and its symptoms.

Transcript of the podcast

Ashok Moloo: You’re listening to the WHO podcast, and my name is Ashok Moloo. An epidemic of meningitis is currently sweeping through sub-Saharan Africa. We talk to experts about the disease and find out how the epidemic is being fought.

Meningitis is an infection of the meninges, the thin lining that surrounds the brain and the spinal cord. Different bacteria can cause meningitis. Dr Stephane Hugonnet from WHO's Epidemic Readiness and Interventions Department tell us how the disease gets transmitted and the symptoms.

Dr Stephane Hugonnet: You catch meningitis through droplets that are emitted by a patient when he is talking, he is coughing or when he is sneezing. There are some situations where transmission can be facilitated, for instance when you sleep in the same room as the patient, or spend a long time with him, at home and using the same knives, forks, plates and living in the same compounds.

Ashok Moloo: The bacteria can be carried in the pharynx and sometimes overwhelm the body’s defences allowing infection to spread through the bloodstream and to the brain and meninges. The symptoms can be severe and deadly.

Dr Stephane Hugonnet: The disease will start with abrupt onset of temperature, headaches, stiff neck, vomiting. In very severe cases the patient can be in coma and eventually die. Meningitis is an extremely serious disease, and even with appropriate treatment up to 10% of the patients can die and unfortunately among the survivors about 20% can have definitive sequelae such as deafness or brain damages. Hopefully, there is a good treatment and there are several antibiotics that can be used to treat meningitis.

Ashok Moloo: Meningitis is a yearly occurrence in sub-Saharan Africa, in an area known as the “Meningitis Belt”. This area stretches from Senegal in the west to Ethiopia in the east, an area with a population of 300 million people. The epidemic peaks during the dry season, between December and June. This year, Nigeria, Niger and Chad are particularly badly affected.

Timely immunization in epidemic areas can prevent 70% of cases. Since January this year, more than 4 million doses of vaccines have been distributed in Nigeria for mass immunization. But do we have enough vaccines to respond to the epidemic in Niger and Chad? William Perrea from WHO's Epidemic and Pandemic Alert and Response department explains the situation.

William Perrea: For the time being yes, we have, thanks to the support of GAVI (Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization) and ECHO (European Commission Humanitiarian Aid Office) we have been able to establish an emergency stockpile that is today up to 10 million doses. However, taking into account the size of the Nigerian population, and knowing that other countries like Sudan maybe affected as well this year, we know that this vaccine may not be enough. We are working with the manufacturers to try to increase the availability of vaccine for the rest of the epidemic season and for the next epidemic seasons to come. But we have to understand that the situation is delicate. If the situation becomes more serious, we may be facing shortages of vaccine.

Ashok Moloo: That was William Perrea from WHO. If you would like to learn more about this subject, there are links to related information on the transcript page of this podcast episode. Look for the link to the podcast on the home page of the web site, at

That's all for this episode of the WHO podcast. Thanks for listening.

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For the World Health Organization, this is Ashok Moloo in Geneva.

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