WHO alarmed by new strain of meningitis

Tuesday January 9 2018

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. FILE PHOTO | AFP 

By ELIZABETH MERAB
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The World Health Organisation has announced a new “hyper-invasive” strain of meningitis at a time when there is an acute shortage of vaccines.

The new strain of meningitis, meningococcal meningitis serogroup C, has already begun spreading across Africa, causing at least 2,500 deaths and with a possible contagion to some 34 million people in 26 African countries in the next two years.

This, the WHO says, threatens to severely limit the continent’s ability to minimise the number of people affected.

“The risk of imminent large-scale epidemics is dangerously high,” said the UN Agency in a press statement.

Last year alone, the meningitis serogroup C strain was blamed for 18,000 cases in Nigeria and Niger. If the population immunity is low, attack rates can be very high (up to 670 cases per 100,000).

“This particular strain is already circulating in the African meningitis belt — Burkina Faso, Mali — and it showed a potential to spread outside the belt as observed in Liberia,” the WHO said.

Kenya’s north has been mapped as one of the regions that have the highest risks of a meningitis epidemic. The areas include Turkana, Pokot, Laisamis, Marsabit, Moyale, Chalbi and Wajir North and Mandera, which have a population of 1.4 million.

“Urgent action is needed to prepare for the worst and minimise the potentially devastating impact of outbreaks. But stocks of C-containing vaccine are alarmingly inadequate,” the WHO said, calling on vaccine manufacturers and donors to increase their availability.

According to the latest data, the 2018 international emergency stockpile has just 2.5 million doses of the C vaccine. An additional 10 million doses are required to complement the stockpile for 2018-2019.

Meningitis is a bacterial infection of the protective membranes (meninges) that surround the brain and spinal cord.