According to a recently published World Health Organization (WHO) Situation Report, a convergence of factors is threatening the region with large outbreaks affecting millions as bacterial meningitis season begins in West Africa.

meningitis epidemics
African meningitis Belt/CDC

A dangerous combination of a new hyper-invasive strain of meningococcal meningitis serogroup C (Nm C) is circulating at the same time that an acute shortage of meningitis C-containing vaccine threatens to severely limit the region’s ability to minimize the number of persons affected.

Officials say the risk of imminent large-scale epidemics is dangerously high. The new serogroup C strain now represents the major risk of meningitis outbreaks in the region. According to WHO estimates validated by international meningitis experts, the worst-case expansion scenario could result in as many as 70,000 cases in the next two years.

Last year alone, the Nm C strain caused 18,000 cases in Nigeria and Niger.

Bacterial meningitis and vaccinations: A discussion with Dr. Leonard Friedland

Meningitis is a severe disease that can cause 20,000 to 200,000 cases in large-scale outbreaks. Those affected die in 10% of cases, and those who survive are at risk of severe neurological consequences. Epidemics of meningococcal meningitis hit the African meningitis belt in periodic waves and are frequently associated with the spread of new epidemic strains.

Urgent action is needed to prepare for the worst and minimize the potentially devastating impact of outbreaks in the region. But stocks of C-containing vaccine are alarmingly inadequate WHO calls on technical and operational partners, vaccine manufacturers, and donors to act now to increase the availability of meningococcal vaccines that protect against serogroup C. The 2018 emergency international stockpile has just 2.5 million doses of C containing vaccine. The immediate need is for an additional 10 million doses to complement the current stockpile for 2018-2019. The priority is for conjugate vaccines. Despite the high cost, they offer the best prospects for disease control by offering a long-lasting immune response.

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