Meningitis vaccine campaign initiated to stop deadly outbreak in Nigeria

Nigerian schoolboys vaccinated against meningitis amid the deadly 2009 outbreak. (LM TP/flickr)

Nigeria launched a vaccination campaign to stop the meningitis outbreak responsible for killing more than 300 people.

Health workers will administer some 500,000 vaccinations in the northwest part of the country to protect people against the deadly disease. Another 800,000 vaccine doses are expected to arrive from the U.K. to be distributed throughout the country.

“We are confident that we have turned the tide, and with increasing vaccination activities, expect a reduction in number of cases,” Nigerian government officials said in a release announcing the vaccine campaign. “Importantly, lessons learned from this outbreak will help the country prepare for the future.”

Nearly 3,000 meningitis cases and 336 deaths have been recorded across 16 states since the end of 2016. That makes it the worst outbreak of the disease since 2009. Authorities believe the outbreak started in Zamfara state and spread to neighboring regions. The government deployed an emergency response team to track, treat and prevent the spread of the outbreak in five states.

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Nigeria is in the middle of what is called the meningitis belt, a region extending across the Sahel of West Africa to the Horn of Africa in the east. Typically Nigeria deals with “type A” meningitis outbreaks, a common form of the disease. The current outbreak is not typical. It involves a new strain of the disease, called “stereotype C.”  The country did not have the vaccines available to deal with the strain, leading it to reach out to the World Health Organization to acquire the initial 500,000 doses.

Meningococcal meningitis is a bacterial form of the disease that infects the lining that surrounds the brain and spinal cord. Untreated, it can kill up to half of those infected, according to the WHO. The fatality rate drops to between 5 percent and 10 percent when treated.

Children between 5 and 14 years old are most affected by it – the group accounts for roughly half of the reported cases in Nigeria. The roughly 15 percent fatality rate for the current outbreak means some people are not getting treatment. And it adds to the urgency to deliver vaccines that provide near-complete protection from infection.

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“Immunization is key to the prevention of meningitis,” Olubunmi Ojo, director of surveillance for the Nigerian Centers for Disease control, said in a statement. “Between 2011 and 2014, the MenAfriVac vaccination campaign against the predominantly circulating Neisseria meningitis serogroup A in Nigeria then, led to a major reduction in cases recorded from that strain.”

Cases were also recently reported in neighboring meningitis belt countries Niger, Chad, Cameroon, Togo and Burkina Faso, according to the Nigerian government. In 2015, an outbreak in Niger killed more than 1,100 people over six months. The hope in Nigeria is to avoid a similar situation by rolling out the new vaccines. Doctors Without Borders, the WHO, UNICEF and other international medical experts are working with the government to stop the outbreak.

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.