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While swine flu dominates headlines, a far nastier blight has erupted in Africa, killing thousands. Here’s the story of one of the world’s most neglected diseases.
It’s a deadly scourge, caused by bacteria that attack the fluid surrounding the brain and spinal cord. Occasionally, a few of America’s young get sick, catching the infection from sneezing, coughing or kissing. Annually, about 300 in the U.S. die from it.
It’s a different story in Africa, where every eight to 10 years or so, a killer epidemic sweeps through the meningitis belt, territory running from Ethiopia in the east to Senegal in the West.
Meningitis is not Africa’s biggest killer, but it is one of the most frightening. In a typical outbreak, the disease kills about 10 percent of its victims and leaves about a quarter of its survivors deaf or mentally retarded. It’s quick and brutal: a child can be fine one day and dead the next.
“Bacterial meningitis is probably the most devastating infectious disease that people get in Africa. We are talking about wards filled with people with life-threatening illness,” said Orin Levine, PhD, an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the executive director of The Pneumococcal Vaccines Accelerated Development Program and Introduction Plan. “A lot of people are surprised to hear this. It’s acute and it kills or disables up to 50 percent of the kids that get it in Africa. There are long-term economic consequences which for impoverished families make matters worse.”
The trick is getting life-saving medicine to sick people and disease-preventing vaccines to healthy people immediately. Somehow it never goes smoothly.
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