|© UNICEF Chad/2009|
|Ahmad is being vaccinated against meningitis at a health centre near N’Ddjamena, Chad. Though he appears not to appreciate this intervention very much, one minute after this photo was taken, he was smiling.|
N’DJAMENA, Chad, 8 May 2009 – Ahmad’s father smiles sadly while he tries to make his little boy stand still so that the nurse can give him a dose of trivalent meningitis vaccine.
“My son is afraid of the needle, but he will realize in a minute that it is nothing,” he says. ”I lost my younger sister two weeks ago. By no means do I want my son to suffer as she did.”
Since the end of December, over 1,160 cases of meningitis have been reported in Chad. At least 128 people have died; most of those affected are children and young people under 18 years of age.
On 14 April, the Chadian Minister of Health officially declared a meningitis outbreak. According to international standards, six areas in the vicinity of the capital, N’Djamena, are considered in epidemic phase – with more than 10 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants per week. Four other areas are on alert status.
Vaccination and information
UNICEF responded immediately by supporting the Chadian Ministry of Health in its immunization efforts, which aim – by mid-May – to reach 1.4 million people aged between 2 and 30 and living in urban areas close to N’Djamena.
On 27 April, the health ministry launched an initial, five-day immunization campaign, with support from UNICEF and the World Health Organization, in the target area around N’Djamena. South of the capital, Doctors Without Borders France is partnering with the authorities to vaccinate people at risk in Durbali, Goundi and Pala.
As the vaccination campaign continues, social mobilization activities are being conducted to inform the population about immunization and the risks of meningitis transmission. Local radio stations, social centres and religious and community leaders are engaged in outreach.
One of the major challenges, health workers say, is that the communities at risk do not appreciate the urgency of the situation.
“My neighbour said she has other things to do right now, that she will bring her boys next week for the vaccination,” explains Fatime, one of the mothers queuing up with their children at a health centre. “I tried to convince her that this could be too late to protect her children, but she insisted that going to the market is a priority.”
High fatality rate
Meningococcal meningitis is an inflammation of the protective membranes covering the central nervous system. While some forms are mild, it is a potentially serious condition owing to the proximity of the inflammation to the brain and spinal cord. Meningitis can lead to brain damage, deafness or death if untreated.
Due to its rapid onset, high fatality rate and long-term impacts, it is one of the most dangerous diseases for children in West Africa.
Chad is in the middle of the ‘meningitis belt’ that stretches from the east to the west coast of Africa, taking in Burkina Faso, Benin, Chad, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Sudan, Togo and Uganda.
While it can be prevented by vaccination campaigns, the disease remains widespread in these countries. One reason is the absence of routine vaccination.
Support for immunization
“Our goal is to eliminate meningitis in this country. UNICEF is committed to immunize children at their most vulnerable stage of life against all threatening childhood diseases,” said the UNICEF Representative in Chad Dr. Marzio Babille.
Since last month, UNICEF has provided enough vaccine and financial support to immunize 700,000 children and young adults. In addition, local health centres in and around N’Djamena have been supplied with medication for the treatment of those already infected.
Today, as the quantity of available vaccine in Chad remains insufficient, efforts are being concentrated in the epidemic areas. WHO is observing the alert-phase areas for further action.
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