High season is nearing the end in the annual battle against meningitis in many countries of equatorial Africa. According to the Centers for Disease Control , there have been over 25,000 suspected cases so far this year in an area that stretches from Mali and Senegal in the west to Ethiopia and Eritrea in the east. Nigeria and Niger have been especially hard hit. The high season for infections runs from December through June.
If you aren’t immunized, it isn’t safe to visit these countries at this time.
Forgive me this pause for a little education – Meningitis is an inflammation of the meninges – the thin lining of the brain and spinal cord. Symptoms may include severe headache, a stiff neck, fever, vomiting, a marked sensitivity to light, and delirium. It is most commonly caused by the Neisseria meningiditis bacteria. Despite early and adequate treatment, 5-10% of patients die, usually within 24-36 hours. Those who recover may experience brain damage, with hearing loss and/or learning disabilities in 10-20% of survivors. The infection is spread by breathing in the small droplets of fluid from the sneezing or coughing of those affected. In short, it spreads quickly and it’s devastating.
Travelers to the so called “meningitis belt” MUST be immunized. Fortunately, the two commercial vaccines available in the United States (MPSV4 or Menomune and MCV4 or MenactraT) provide protection against the most common types of infection. Students who are immunized against meningitis in preparation for dormitory living in the U.S. typically receive these vaccines, but they should check with their physician to make sure they are protected. Those traveling through or living in the meningitis belt should adopt strategies for avoiding the illness such as staying away from large gatherings, refraining from sharing drinking and eating utensils, and seeking medical attention at the first sign of a headache, fever, stiff neck, or purplish rash.
The CDC has a website for frequently asked questions about meningitis and the World Health Organization provides useful information on its website. Though there is no guarantee that vaccinations will eliminate your chance of contracting the infection, they are safe, effective and highly recommended.