By Asmau Ahmad
The World Health Organisation (WHO) says a deadly outbreak of meningitis has been declared in a North eastern province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
No fewer than 260 suspected cases and 129 deaths have been reported in Tshopo Province; with a high case fatality ratio of 50 per cent, the UN health agency said on Wednesday.
WHO says it is supporting health authorities in the DRC to deploy an initial emergency response team, after tests carried out by the Institut Pasteur in Paris, detected Neisseria meningitis.
It is one of the most frequent strains of the bacterial form of the disease, with a potential to cause large epidemics, WHO said, as it explained that more than 100 patients were currently receiving treatment at home and in health centres in Banalia, the community affected by the outbreak.
Meningitis is potentially fatal and must be treated with antibiotics as soon as possible, while major improvements had been made on vaccines to treat the viral form of the disease, which is transmitted through the air by infected carriers.
Although people of all ages were at risk for the disease, it mainly affects babies, children and young people.
A crisis response committee had been set up in Banalia, as well as in Kisangani, the capital of Tshopo, to accelerate the outbreak control efforts, with WHO providing medical supplies in Banalia and plans to deploy more experts and resources.
“We are moving fast, delivering medicines and deploying experts to support the government’s efforts to bring the outbreak under control in the shortest possible time,” the UN Correspondent of the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) quotes Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa, as saying on Wednesday.
Over the years, major improvements have been made on vaccines against infection, which are specific to the type of meningitis.
The disease is transmitted through droplets of respiratory or throat secretions from infected people and it had been established that close and prolonged contact or living in close quarters with an infected person facilitates the spread of the disease.
“We are scaling up control measures within the community and rapidly investigating suspected cases in surrounding localities to treat patients and curb potentially widespread infections,” said Dr Amédée Prosper WHO Representative in the DRC.
Djiguimdé reported that more than 1.6 million people aged between 1 and 29 years were vaccinated during an extensive campaign in 2016, in Tshopo, which lies in the African meningitis belt that runs across the continent from Senegal to Ethiopia and comprises 26 countries.
The African meningitis belt is the most vulnerable globally to recurrent outbreaks. Outbreaks had occurred in several DRC provinces in the past, starting with a 2009 outbreak in Kisangani which infected 214 people and caused 15 deaths – a case fatality ratio of eight per cent.
In November 2020, the World Health Assembly, the global health policy-setting body, approved a roadmap for a meningitis-free world by 2030, with three key objectives.
The objectives included, the elimination of bacterial meningitis, reduction of vaccine-preventable bacterial meningitis by 50 per cent and deaths by 70 per cent, as well as reduction of disability and improvement of quality of life after meningitis.