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West African Meningitis Outbreak Sparks Warning from UN Aid Agencies

United Nations humanitarian agencies are stepping up their efforts to combat a deadly outbreak of meningitis across West Africa, warning that the highly// contagious disease could spread even more rapidly in coming months during the traditional annual migration period within the region.

Since the start of the year 798 people have died and 8,557 cases have been recorded across nine countries that form part of the so-called “meningitis belt,” a sub-Saharan region stretching from Senegal to Ethiopia that is particularly prone to epidemics and is home to an estimated 300 million people.

The worst affected country is Burkina Faso, where 583 people have died and more than 7,300 cases diagnosed between 1 January and 11 March. Some 22 of Burkina Faso’s 55 districts are now classed as being in a state of epidemic.

At the same time, deaths or diagnosed cases have also been reported in Benin, Chad, C?te d’Ivoire, Ghana, Mali, Niger, Nigeria and Togo, according to a statement released today by the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

With the support of the UN World Health Organization (WHO), Burkina Faso’s Government has launched a $3 million appeal for international assistance, and the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has provided $200,000. Canada and several non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have also provided financial or technical support.

The UN Central Emergency Respond Fund (CERF), set up to quickly disburse funds during crises, has made $1.7 million available for anti-meningitis operations in northern C?te d’Ivoire, while Niger is also increasing training of health-care workers and ensuring extra stocks of medicines are in place if needed.

But Hervé Ludovic de Lys, OCHA’s representative in West Africa, warned that additional assistance is urgently needed across the region.

“The open borders and traditional seasonal migration which characterizes the Sahel sub-region s tarting in May-June could lead to the rapid spread of the disease in the coming weeks,” Mr. de Lys said.

“Despite the efforts undertaken by governments, the chronic nature of such outbreaks should prompt us to re-evaluate the effectiveness of the education, prevention and response initiatives implemented over the last several decades.”

Meningitis bacteria, which affect the lining surrounding the brain and spinal cord, are transmitted from person to person through droplets of respiratory or throat secretions. Close and prolonged contact – such as kissing, sneezing and coughing, and sharing eating or drinking utensils – promotes the spread of the disease. Symptoms include a stiff neck, high fever, sensitivity to light, confusion, headaches and vomiting, and a small percentage of survivors can suffer brain damage or hearing loss or acquire a learning disability.

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