A lethal meningitis outbreak has been reported in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
The World Health Organisation (WHO) on Wednesday declared the public health situation that began in the north-eastern Tshopo Province an emergency.
So far, there have been 261 suspected cases and 129 deaths; a high case fatality ratio of 50 percent.
WHO said the situation was likely to worsen, and that efforts were underway to set up and dispatch emergency teams to respond to the situation.
Confirmatory tests carried out by the Institut Pasteur in Paris identified the outbreak as Neisseria meningitides, one of the most frequent types of bacterial meningitis.
“Meningitis is a serious infection and a major public health challenge. We are moving fast, delivering medicine and deploying experts to support the government’s efforts to bring the outbreak under control in the shortest possible time,” WHO Regional Director for Africa, Dr Matshidiso Moeti, said.
It is feared that the developing situation could cause a public health crisis of unpredictable magnitude and complicate things for the public health system in the country given the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.
Meningitis is also a respiratory illness transmitted from person to person through droplets of respiratory or throat secretions from infected people.
Close and prolonged contact or living in close quarters with an infected person catalyses the spread of the disease. And although people of all ages can contract the disease, it mainly affects infants, children and young people.
WHO said more than 100 patients were already receiving treatment at home and in health centres in Banalia, the epicentre of the outbreak, by Wednesday.
Treatment had also been set rolling in Kisangani, the capital of Tshopo.
“We are scaling up control measures within the community and rapidly investigating suspected cases in surrounding localities to treat patients and curb potentially widespread infections,” said WHO’s Representative in DRC, Dr Amédée Prosper Djiguimdé.
A meningitis outbreak was last reported in several provinces of the DRC in 2009, with 214 infected people and 15 deaths—a case fatality ratio of 8 percent.
Over the years, major improvements have been made on vaccines specific to this type of meningitis.
More than 1.6 million people aged between 1 year and 29 years were vaccinated in a massive campaign in 2016 in Tshopo, which lies in the African meningitis belt that runs across the continent from Senegal to Ethiopia and comprises 26 countries. The African meningitis belt is the most vulnerable globally to recurrent outbreaks.
In November 2020, the World Health Assembly—the global health policy-setting body—approved a roadmap for a meningitis-free world by 2030, with three key objectives: elimination of bacterial meningitis, reduction of vaccine-preventable bacterial meningitis by 50 percent and deaths by 70 percent, as well as reduction of disability and improvement of quality of life after meningitis.