Nigerian health authorities have placed northern states on high alert following a meningitis outbreak in neighbouring Niger, which according to the World Health Organization (WHO) killed 17 people and infected 382 in January.
“In view of the fact that there are certain states sharing boundaries with Niger Republic, we have adopted a stitch-in-time strategy of putting these states on a state of high alert,” said Nigerian Health Minister Babatunde Osotimehin in a 4 February statement.
The Nigerian states identified as highest-risk are Katsina, Sokoto, Kano, Kebbi and Jigawa.
Since 1 February Nigerian health officials reported 15 deaths from meningitis and more than 200 hospitalisations in Katsina state, one of Nigeria’s closest states to Zinder, an infected region in Niger.
“[We decided] to intensify efforts to ensure that we curb its spread so that it [meningitis] does not explode into an epidemic, given the highly contagious nature of the disease,” said a Katsina state health official who requested anonymity.
Bacteria that cause meningitis attack the spinal cord or brain lining, leading to possible paralysis, deafness, nervous disorders and death, according to WHO.
Nigeria’s national government has announced it is heightening surveillance and improving laboratories in all 44 states, improving public awareness of the disease and distributing the chloramphenicol antibiotic used to treat meningitis.
Kano, which borders Katsina and is Nigeria's most populous state, has started running radio jingles on ways to prevent infection, according to state health commissioner Aisha Kiru.
The commissioner told IRIN health officials are reminding people to keep bedroom windows open and to “ensure ventilation” wherever they are. The disease is spread from person to person through droplets of respiratory or throat secretions, according to WHO.
The health agency estimates that up to 25 percent of the population, more in epidemic areas, may carry the bacteria at any given time without being infected.
“We have mobilised local chiefs, public health personnel and local government authorities for [education] campaigns in all the nooks and corners of the state,” commissioner Kiru told IRIN.
Kiru predicted “disastrous” consequences in the case of a spillover of the epidemic from Niger.
In 1996 Africa experienced the largest recorded meningitis epidemic in history with more than 250,000 recorded cases and 25,000 deaths, including more than 1,000 in Nigeria.
During the dry season in West Africa, typically October to June, dust winds and cold nights lead to more respiratory infections, according to WHO. The infection spreads most rapidly in overcrowded living quarters.