Has the Meningitis Vaccine Failed? Outbreak in Africa Kills More Than 260 Nigerians

More than 260 people have died from the meningitis outbreak in Nigeria so far in 2017.
A woman feeds her daughter, who is suffering brain damage resulting from Cerebral Spinal Meningitis, at the Save the Children stabilisation ward in Maiduguri, Nigeria November 30, 2016. Picture taken November 30, 2016. More than 260 people have died from the meningitis outbreak in Nigeria as of March 27, 2017. Afolabi Sotunde/REUTERS

More than 260 people have died in Nigeria as a result of the African country’s recent meningitis outbreak—eight times more than the number of deaths caused by the disease in 2016.

In a series of tweets, Nigeria’s Center for Disease Control (NDC) said there were 1,828 suspected cases of meningitis reported so far in 2017. Across the country’s 15 states, 269 Nigerians had died as of Monday compared to the 33 people killed by the disease back in 2016.

Although there is a meningitis vaccine, Nigerian officials are concerned there could be a new strain of the disease being transmitted from neighboring countries and refugees who have flocked to Nigeria. The country's Minister of Health Isaac Adewole told BBC News that the potential foreign strain of meningitis that is affecting Nigerians could be resistant to the vaccine usually administered to prevent the spread of the disease; that may explain the relatively high number of fatalities from the virus this year. 

Meningitis, which can be spread by a virus or bacteria, causes the meninges, a protective covering surrounding the brain and spinal cord, to swell. In cases of bacterial meningitis, which is common in some African countries including Nigeria, the infection can turn into meningococcal disease.

The NCDC said serotype C, a particular strain of Neisseria meningitides or meningococcus, was responsible for the epidemic ravaging the country. About 90 percent of meningitis serotypes classified as A, B and C are behind meningococcal disease, which can cause respiratory and nerve dysfunction as well as death if untreated, according to the World Health Organization.

Although meningitis bacteria is generally airborne, people can be infected through respiratory secretions as well.

Nigeria, which lies along Africa’s sub-Saharan meningitis belt, hasn’t faced a major meningitis outbreak since 2009, when 156 people died from the disease.