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Woman sitting on a hospital bed and holding her baby on her lap.

Care for a child with meningitis can cost nearly everything a family owns. Photo: PATH/Monique Berlier.

Sometimes they sacrifice everything

What family wouldn’t do whatever they could to help a sick child? In sub-Saharan Africa, mothers and fathers are forced to think about this every year as meningitis outbreaks begin. They sacrifice everything to pay for treatment and fight for their children’s lives.

In 2007, the Meningitis Vaccine Project (MVP) asked l'Association de Médecine Préventive to conduct a detailed socioeconomic study in Burkina Faso to understand the cost of a meningitis epidemic on the community. They found that a single case of meningitis costs a family US$90—about three to four months of the family’s disposable income. The cost reflects medicines, nursing care, transportation to health services, lost wages, and other direct and indirect costs.

“For a poor family, this new expense simply cycles them further down into yet a lower level of poverty,” says Dr. Marc LaForce, MVP director.

“The last thing you sell when times are bad is the front door.”

It will take families years to work their way out of this extreme poverty. To pay for needed treatment, families sell whatever they can—their chickens, their cows, other tools of their livelihood. The most desperate will even sell their front doors, a sign that they have truly lost everything.

“For an African family, a front door is very important because it’s what you build your house around,” explains LaForce. Often carved or painted, the doors are unique and personal to every family. “The last thing you sell when times are bad is the front door,” LaForce says. “And you only have to see that once or twice for such an event to make a terrible impact on you, to see how bad it really is.”

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