Meningitis and Africa

Meningococcal disease is caused by a Gram-negative bacterium, Neisseria meningitidis (the meningococcus), which is spread from person to person by respiratory droplets.

Most meningococcal infections result in a period of carriage with the infected person carrying the bacteria in their pharynx (part of the throat), but not becoming ill. Carriers are responsible for spreading the infection from person to person.  Rarely, meningococci invade the blood stream to cause septicaemia and/or meningitis.

Studies of meningococcal disease in Africa show that, over the last 100 years, major epidemics have occurred every few years within countries of the Sahel and sub-Sahel,  the African meningitis belt. The meningitis belt, first defined by Lapeyssonnie in 1963, stretches across Africa from Ethiopia in the east to The Gambia and Senegal in the west.

Vaccination meningococcal polysaccharide vaccines after the start of an epidemic have saved many lives in Africa but has not reduced the frequency of epidemics. The serogroup A meningococcal polysaccharide/protein conjugate vaccine developed by the Meningitis Vaccine Project, a partnership between WHO and PATH) should be able to prevent epidemics because it is likely to prevent carriage. Deployment of this new vaccine in countries of the African meningitis belt  commenced in 2010 and will continue to be rolled out across the region through 2015. Preliminary results suggest that the vaccine was effective in preventing meningococcal meningitis and carriage in Burkina Faso.

Find out more about the current situation regarding meningococcal disease in the African countries participating in MenAfriCar.

Field station, Chad. © CSSI