Dusty winter winds from the Sahara signal annual meningitis epidemics. Photo: PATH/Monique Berlier.
Families, health workers, and governments brace for the annual epidemics
Every winter for decades, communities from Senegal to Sudan braced themselves for a killer. As the rains dried up and the Harmattan winds began to blow south from the Sahara across this vast region, the swirling sands kicked up something just as predictable: meningitis.
Meningitis-causing bacteria spread quickly through sneezing and coughing in the region’s often overcrowded and poor living conditions. Soon, an epidemic was under way. Panic ensued. Vendors closed their market stalls. Routine health services ground to a halt. Families stayed indoors, refusing to go outside and put themselves at risk of the disease.
Even so, thousands of infants, adolescents, and young adults developed high fevers, vomiting, lethargy, stiff necks. Even with prompt medical attention, the disease damaged brains and spinal cords, causing deafness, mental retardation, seizures, or paralysis. About 10 percent of infected people died. During a meningitis epidemic in 1996 and 1997, the disease struck more than 250,000 people and caused 25,000 deaths. Between then and 2010, when the MenAfriVac® vaccine was introduced, more than 224,000 cases of meningitis were reported.
About 450 million people living in the “meningitis belt” were at risk of contracting meningococcus type A, the strain most commonly found in the region. Until the coming of a new vaccine, no family could be considered immune from meningitis’ harsh effects.