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Florence, Rosalie, and Diane Ouedraogo

Florence, Rosalie, and Diane Ouedraogo.

Before vaccine, disease came for Rosalie Ouedraogo’s three children

Florence, her youngest, was the first to fall ill, Rosalie Ouedraogo recalls. It was 1994, and the little girl was only six years old. Florence escaped meningitis A with her life. But the disease, a bacterial infection of the lining surrounding the brain and spinal cord, stole her hearing.

Three years later, during the largest epidemic of meningitis A recorded in sub-Saharan Africa, it was Rosalie’s son, Xavier, who got sick. He too survived, but was left profoundly deaf and with vision problems. He was 15.

About a year after that, meningitis came for Rosalie’s third child, Diane, then 11 or 12 years old. As they had with the other children, the family took Diane to the hospital in Ouagadougou, the capital city of the West African country of Burkina Faso. But they arrived too late. Diane, who has other severe physical disabilities, joined her brother and sister in a world of silence.

As sad as it is, the family’s story is unusual only in that not one of Rosalie Ouedraogo’s children escaped meningitis A.

A chance to stop a killer

For a century, epidemics of meningococcal A meningitis have swept across 25 countries in sub-Saharan Africa, leaving behind sickness, hearing loss, and death. One in ten people infected die within two days of showing symptoms. A quarter of survivors are left with permanent hearing loss, mental retardation, seizures, paralysis, or infection requiring amputation.

Two women weaving a purse from long strips of plastic.

Rosalie and Diane Ouedraogo weave a purse.

Now the region has a chance to break the cycle of sickness and death. In December 2010, “meningitis belt” countries starting with Burkina Faso began to introduce a vaccine developed specifically for their region by the Meningitis Vaccine Project (MVP), a collaboration between PATH and the World Health Organization. In less than a decade, MVP developed, tested, and introduced meningitis A vaccine designed specifically for Africa. At less than US$.50 a dose, the new vaccine is priced at a level the countries can afford.

More than 55 million people have been immunized so far. Eventually some 320 million may receive the vaccine, breaking the hold of meningitis A over sub-Saharan Africa and families like the Ouedraogos.

Finding a way to live

At sunset, darkness drops fast over neighborhoods, like the Ouedraogo’s, that lack electricity. Rosalie and her two daughters live in a small mud brick house off a courtyard they share with four families. Her husband, Rosalie says, left after the children fell ill. Xavier lives with an uncle and works as a woodcarver.

The three women make a life as best they can. Florence is a good student and aspires to become an electrician. She has a few more years of schooling before she can take a test to obtain the equivalent of a US high school diploma. Diane used to attend school, but had to quit when her disabilities became more than the school could handle.

Now Diane and her mother spend their days embroidering cloth and weaving small purses out of brightly colored plastic strips. Rosalie sells what she can. She touches the large metal cross she wears around her neck. “With the help of God, we manage to survive,” Rosalie says. “We don’t have much, but with God’s help, somehow we make it.”

Photos: PATH/Gabe Bienczycki.