Meningitis has killed 544 people in Burkina Faso since January a leading government health official, Dr. Jean Wango, said on Wednesday, but he called for calm.
"There is no need to panic," Wango, the secretary-general of the Health Ministry, said at a news conference.
Since January, he said, there had been 3,574 cases of meningitis in Burkina Faso. Ten of the country's 53 health districts have been declared epidemic zones, with at least 10 cases reported for every 100,000 inhabitants. Officials said the high death rate was due to low levels of vaccination.
Meningitis is viral or bacterial infection of the fluid in a person’s spinal cord and the fluid that surrounds the brain. In Africa, the disease often surfaces during annual dry seasons when strong desert winds blow south, raining in dust over the area. Wango said the dust and heat wave presented favourable conditions for the disease, which affected thousands of people from Senegal, in the west of the continent, to Ethiopia in the east.
Officials are offering free vaccinations and health care for people in the 13 worst hit health districts in Burkina Faso, while the World Health Organisation (WHO) has said it would provide the government with 1.9 million doses of vaccines.
Officials also said a new strain of the disease, the W135 meningitis germ present in Saudi Arabia, has appeared in Burkina Faso, most likely brought by pilgrims from Mecca in 2000. Vaccines to counter this strain are not yet available in Burkina Faso where, officials said, till now only meningitis forms A and C were present.
Researchers from at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and WHO are in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger investigating the Saudi meningitis strain. A WHO specialist on meningitis told IRIN on Thursday that there was a worldwide scarcity of the vaccine Tetravalent (which combats the meningitis strains A, C, Y and W135). The researcher said that till now the W135 strain had not appeared in Africa. Saudi authorities, the official said, were now demanding that all pilgrims to Mecca be vaccinated against meningitis before being allowed entry into the country.
In January, health officials launched a US $1.66 million "mass prevention campaign'' against meningitis aimed at immunising three million people aged from two years to 30 years. In 2001, meningitis killed 1,854 of the 13,293 cases registered in Burkina Faso; but the worst recent occurrence was in 1996 when 4,000 died.