Ida Tapsoba, carrying her infant daughter on her back.

Ida Tapsoba and her daughter Ariane. Photo: PATH/Gabe Bienczycki.

In a Burkina Faso village, a mother explains why she’s in line for vaccine

If you get this disease, Ida Tapsoba says, it’s a very big problem.

On the second day of Burkina Faso’s 2010 vaccination campaign against meningococcal A meningitis, Ida, 29, is standing in line to get immunized at the health center in the village of Koubri. Wrapped tight to her back is Ariane, her 13-month-old daughter.

Getting meningitis, an infection of the lining surrounding the brain and spinal cord, is a problem because treating a sick child can consume a third of a family’s disposable income; because even survivors are at risk of serious disabilities like brain damage and hearing loss; because one in ten people who get the disease die, typically within a day or two of falling sick. Ida and her neighbors are aware of these things, and they know epidemic meningitis is to be feared.

Doma Guere, a nurse who began working at the center just after the last epidemic wave of meningitis passed in 2007, agrees with Ida. There is no one in the village, he says, who is not afraid of meningitis. “People panic when they hear there may be one or two confirmed cases of meningitis,” he says. “If anyone has a fever or a belly ache they bring him here because they are so afraid it’s meningitis.”

A good reason for vaccine

Doma Guere, dressed in a white uniform and speaking to a crowd.

Nurse Doma Guere directs the crowd in line for vaccination. Photo: PATH/Gabe Bienczycki.

More than 25,000 people died and more than 250,000 were sickened when the largest meningitis A epidemic ever recorded spread through sub-Saharan Africa in 1996 and 1997. That horrific toll eventually led to the formation of the Meningitis Vaccine Project (MVP), a collaboration between PATH and the World Health Organization.

In less than a decade, MVP developed and delivered a vaccine against meningitis A. Called MenAfriVac®, the vaccine was designed specifically for Africa at a price that resource-strapped health systems could afford: less than US$.50 a dose.

MenAfriVac was first introduced in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger in 2010. Eventually, it will reach some 320 million people in Africa’s “meningitis belt”—and potentially end epidemic meningitis there forever.

A somber listing

Approach anyone standing in line for vaccine on a pleasantly warm afternoon in Ida’s friendly village. Ask if they know someone who has been sickened by meningitis. They will answer you politely: A friend killed at age 17. An aunt who survived, but who is now deaf.  A sister’s 10-year-old boy, dead. A little brother, taken at age 7.

Ask Ida: does she know anyone who has had meningitis?

She nods somberly. Yes, she says, her own son got sick during the last epidemic outbreak. He was just a year old.

Brace yourself, and ask as respectfully as you can: what happened?

Ida draws a breath. She felt desolated, she says. She was extremely anxious. The sickness lasted three days. But on the fourth day, her son improved, and he survived. He’s four years old now, and in good health.

By now Ida is at the head of the line, and she and Ariane are about to be vaccinated.

Ida smiles.

MenAfriVac is a registered trademark of Serum Institute of India Ltd.