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Map showing meningitis belt across sub-Saharan Africa.

Africa's “meningitis belt.” For more detail, see our larger map.

Meningitis strikes quickly and kills as many as one in ten people who are sickened

Epidemics of meningococcal A meningitis have swept across 25 countries in sub-Saharan Africa for a century, leaving illness, hearing loss, and death in their wake. The disease is one of the most feared on the continent. Its epidemics once occurred every 8 to 12 years, but in the last three decades they have struck more frequently and touched more countries in Africa. They now stretch south of the traditional horizontal swath known as the meningitis belt, reaching countries that previously had been spared.

More than 25,000 people died and more than 250,000 were sickened when the largest epidemic ever recorded in history spread through the region in 1996 and 1997. In 2009 more than 88,000 people in Africa were stricken by meningitis. Every year, families live with the threat of the disease, wondering if it will strike their loved ones or themselves.

What is meningitis?

Meningitis is an infection of the thin lining surrounding the brain and spinal cord. Viral cases of meningitis are generally benign and resolve themselves without treatment, while bacterial cases are much more serious. Meningococcal bacteria live in the noses or the back of the throats of 10 to 25 percent of people worldwide, and they spread to many more people during an epidemic.

The infection sets in rapidly with severe headache and high fever, and it can kill within hours. Even with timely antibiotics, one in ten people infected will die within two days of the first sign of symptoms. One in four survivors is left with permanent hearing loss, mental retardation, seizures, paralysis, or infection requiring amputation of one’s limbs. Without antibiotic treatment, up to 80 percent of infected individuals can die.

Africa’s meningitis

In Africa, more than 90 percent of meningitis epidemics are caused by Neisseria meningitidis group A, which mostly attacks infants, children, and young adults. The bacteria spread during the dry season from November through June, helped along by overcrowded living conditions and mobile populations traveling for pilgrimages or to reach regional markets. The disease taxes health clinics, shuts down commerce, and confines families to their homes to wait out the wave.

Through the Meningitis Vaccine Project (MVP), PATH and the World Health Organization have led the development of a historic meningitis A conjugate vaccine to address the specific cause of epidemic meningitis in the region.

Next Past and future solutions to meningitis epidemics