Man standing next to a dusty street, his hands over his nose and mouth.

Dusty winter winds from the Sahara signal annual meningitis epidemics. Photo: PATH/Monique Berlier.

Families, health workers, and governments brace for the annual epidemics

Every winter, communities from Senegal to Sudan have braced themselves for a killer. As the rains dry up and the Harmattan winds begin to blow south from the Sahara across this vast region, the swirling sands kick up something just as predictable: meningitis.

Meningitis-causing bacteria colonize the back of the throat and can spread quickly through sneezing and coughing in the region’s often overcrowded and poor living conditions. Soon, an epidemic is under way. Panic ensues. Vendors close their market stalls. Routine health services grind to a halt. Families stay indoors, refusing to go outside and put themselves at risk of the disease.

Even so, thousands of infants, adolescents, and young adults develop high fevers, vomiting, lethargy, stiff necks. Even with prompt medical attention, the disease can damage their brains and spinal cords, causing deafness, mental retardation, seizures, or paralysis. About 10 percent die. During a meningitis epidemic in 1996 and 1997, the worst in recent years, the disease struck more than 250,000 people and caused 25,000 deaths. Since then, more than 224,000 cases of meningitis have been reported.

About 450 million people living in the “meningitis belt” are at risk of contracting meningococcus type A, the strain most commonly found in the region. No family can be considered immune from meningitis’ harsh effects.

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