(formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

5 million at risk as meningitis death toll climbs

Burkina Faso's government says 23 percent acute malnutrition is not a crisis. Aid agencies say the government is the obstacle to making progress.
Nicholas Reader/IRIN

Amid warnings of a major meningitis outbreak in Africa this year, epidemic levels of the bacterial infection have broken out in parts of Burkina Faso.

“Despite the efforts of the government and its partners in 2008, the vaccination campaign did not reach all the districts currently facing the outbreak,” Alain Yoda, Burkina Faso’s Minister of health said in a press conference in early January.

Overall 774 cases have been reported, with Mandogara district close to the Cote d’Ivoire border at epidemic levels and three other health districts on high alert.

Souleymane Sanou, director general at the Ministry of Health, estimated five million people are now at risk in 20 health districts across the country.

The government has received one million vaccine doses to fight the outbreak.

Vaccinations missed

Dr. Souleymane Sanou, director-general of health at the Ministry of Health, said the high number of people at risk in Burkina Faso is partly because the government could not predict exactly which regions would be affected, and had not carried out vaccinations in all of them.

Just one of the affected districts has been immunised in the past three years, and altogether, 19 out of 55 districts have not been covered, he said.

“The vaccine against meningitis immunises people for three years,” Sanou said. “People in the affected regions were immunised over three years ago.”

Burkina Faso lacked vaccination drugs and the money to buy it, leaving health workers no choice but to wait for the illnesses to begin before they could react, officials said.

Dr. André Ouedraogo, region adviser at the World Health Organization (WHO) blamed donors. Prevention of epidemics that might not happen is costly, so donors prefer to wait for a crisis to hit before providing the funds for an emergency response, he said.

WHO asked donors to provide US$14 million over 2008 to purchase 12 million doses of vaccine and injection materials, to cover transport, storage and insurance costs to boost prevention efforts across the region.

Next Steps

Minister of Health Yoda said the government needs a further US$4.5 million to add to its existing US$2.2 million if it is to prepare for an epidemic across all 55 of the country’s health districts.

This money would go towards reacting to the current outbreak through vaccination campaigns and monitoring the spread of the disease, as well as trying to prevent future outbreaks through raising awareness and ensuring all health districts have the medicines they need, he said.

“We need out partners to step in to make up the budget,” said Sylvestre Tiendébéogo, director of the fight against diseases at the Ministry of Health.

Burkina Faso’s main donors are the European Union and the World Bank, while France is the biggest bilateral donor.

Cost effective

Maxime Yameogo, health coordinator of the Burkina Faso Red Cross, said more could be done to prevent the disease from spreading, even without millions of donor dollars.

The Burkina Faso Red Cross trains volunteers in the country to try to spread health messages and help people know how to avoid contracting the illness in the first place. 

On a wider scale, the International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC) has launched an appeal for US$450,000 to carry out similar work in ten countries across the region.

At least 80 million people living in 21 countries from Ethiopia in East Africa to Mauritania in West Africa that make up a region often called Africa’s ‘meningitis belt’ might need to be injected with preventative vaccines this year, according to a WHO spokesperson.

Epidemic levels of meningitis have also been reported elsewhere in West Africa in late 2007 and early 2008. 250 cases have been recorded in two northern Nigerian states, Jigawa and Katsina, while 18 people have died in Mali, Niger and Ghana, according to the WHO.


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