Meningococcal meningitis is a highly contagious form of bacterial meningitis. This is a serious inflammation of the meninges, the thin membrane surrounding the brain and spinal cord. The vast majority of meningitis cases and deaths occur in Africa. During the dry season (December to June), epidemics regularly hit the "meningitis belt", a region of Africa that stretches across the continent from Senegal to Ethiopia.
Even when the disease is diagnosed early and when an adequate therapy is initiated, five to 10 % of patients die within 24 to 48 hours after exhibiting the first symptoms. Without treatment, up to 50% of cases can die. Symptoms include sudden and intense headaches, fever, nausea, vomiting, photophobia (low tolerance to light) and a stiff neck. A range of antibiotics can treat the infection, including penicillin, ampicillin, chloramphenicol and ceftriaxone. In areas where there are medical infrastructures and limited resources, oily chloramphenicol or ceftriaxone are the drugs of choice because a single dose is sufficient to effectively treat meningococcal meningitis.
However, mass vaccinations in a timely manner is the most effective way to limit the spread of epidemics. WHO has estimated that mass immunizations have managed to avoid up to 70% of suspected cases in individual meningitis epidemics in Africa. Large preventive vaccination campaigns have now been carried out in Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Ghana, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal and Sudan and have resulted in a decrease in the number of new cases. The vaccination campaigns have helped to stop the cycle of deadly meningococcal A epidemics in the region, but smaller-scale outbreaks caused by other strains continue to be recorded. An epidemic in Niger in 2015, which was an extension of an epidemic in neighbouring Nigeria, was the first large meningococcal C epidemic ever recorded in the country.
In total, MSF vaccinated 197,700 people against meningitis in response to outbreaks in 2019.