April 18, 2009 / 6:15 PM / 10 years ago

West, Central African meningitis toll over 2,500

DAKAR (Reuters) - Meningitis has killed more than 2,500 people this year in West and Central Africa in what could become the worst epidemic for five years, UNICEF said.

Meningitis is an infection of the thin lining that surrounds the brain and spinal cord. Infection rates in Africa rise during the dry and hot period from January to May and the “meningitis belt” stretching from Senegal to Ethiopia is especially prone.

UNICEF said in a statement that in the year to April 5, 2,519 people had died of meningitis in Nigeria, Niger, Burkina Faso and Chad, out of a total of 47,310 cases.

“The agency is warning that lives in other countries in the meningitis belt could be at risk if more vaccines are not made available to contain the disease,” UNICEF said.

Nigeria was the worst hit with 1,701 deaths followed by Burkina Faso with 389.

Despite vaccines being released from global stocks to tackle the outbreak in the region, Nigeria needed a further 2.5 million doses and Niger another 300,000, UNICEF said.

Chad’s health minister declared a meningitis epidemic last week and went on national radio to assure people the government would start a vaccination program.

Health officials have launched such a program for two- to 30-year-olds in Niger with vaccines provided by the World Health Organization.

Meningitis spreads mainly through kisses, sneezes, coughs, and in close living quarters, especially when people share cups, forks, and spoons.

The largest recorded meningitis outbreak in the African high-risk zone where, like polio, the disease is endemic, occurred in 1996-1997 when an estimated 100,000 people were infected in Nigeria and 50,000 in Niger.

Up to 20 percent of people who survive infection with bacterial meningitis suffer brain damage, hearing loss or learning disability.

Additional reporting by Abdoulaye Massalatchi in Niamey and Moumin Ngarmbassa in N'Djamena; Editing by David Clarke and Robert Woodward

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