BURKINA FASO: Meningitis spreads amidst vaccine shortage

Wednesday, March 14, 2007
Despite recent appeals for assistance, health authorities in Burkina Faso say they still lack vaccines to help stem a meningitis epidemic that has already claimed more than 400 lives, mostly children.

“We did everything but we still do not have the vaccine doses,” said Sylvestre Tiendrebeogo, a director of the Ministry of Health. “We need 3.5 million doses to cover all the health districts and above all [the capital] Ouagadougou. It is important that we launch a vaccination campaign for all to prevent the epidemic from spreading to all the cities.”

Health authorities so far have registered 4,958 cases of meningitis and 432 deaths. This compares with 3,636 cases and 399 deaths during the same period last year.

Tiendrebeogo said the government had 500,000 available vaccines when the epidemic began early this year. It appealed for funds to purchase vaccines in February and this week urgently requested 1.3 million vaccines from the International Coordination Group on Vaccine Provision for Epidemic Meningitis Control (ICG) to launch a mass vaccination campaign in Ouagadougou and other affected districts.

“We’re in the meningitis season. It’s not unusual that there is this number of cases and we’ve already had quite a few number of requests for vaccines from the ICG,” said Gregory Hartl, a spokesman for the World Health Organisation (WHO) in Geneva. “There will likely be more requests as time goes on.”

WHO helped establish the ICG to ensure rapid and equal access to vaccines and medicine to treat the illness after large outbreaks of meningitis in Africa in 1995 and 1996. The ICG also includes Medecins Sans Frontieres, the United Nations children’s agency (UNICEF) and other agencies and nongovernmental organisations.

Tiendrebeogo said efforts were underway to work with WHO so that the 1.3 million vaccines requested could be delivered this week. Hartl said countries that request vaccines usually receive them “relatively fast but it depends on logistics” in each particular country.

“We witness children passing away every day,” said Desire Ilboudo, who lives on the outskirts of Ouagadougou where the epidemic has it. “You do not hear that they are sick, you just hear a mother’s strident cries and you know that something bad had happened.”

Health officials have urged family members of patients to stay away from admission rooms at clinics and hospitals to help avoid further spread of the disease. MSF has set up tents on the grounds of Pissy hospital on the outskirts of Ouagadougou to screen potential new cases.

“We have seen cases where relatives of patients came back as sick people because they have been contaminated,” Tiendrebeogo said.

West Africa’s semi-arid Sahelian countries, sometimes referred to as the “meningitis belt” are hit each year by outbreaks of bacterial meningitis during the dry seasons between December and June. Dust-laden winds along with cold nights combine to lower people’s immunity to respiratory tract infections, which makes it easier to contract meningitis.

Hartl of WHO said four countries - Burkina Faso, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda - are currently experiencing the worst epidemics among African countries that have been hit this year. Other affected countries include Côte d’Ivoire, Niger, Mali, Benin, Ghana, Togo and Guinea.

Typically, five to 10 percent of meningitis patients die within 24 to 48 hours of the first symptoms, while 10 to 20 percent of survivors suffer brain damage, hearing loss, and learning disabilities.
Author: IRIN
Source: IRIN
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