The Democratic Republic of the Congo has declared an outbreak of meningitis in the north-eastern Tshopo Province where 261 suspected cases and 129 deaths—a high case fatality ratio of 50%—have been reported.
Confirmatory tests carried out by the Institut Pasteur in Paris detected Neisseria meningitidis – one of the most frequent types of bacterial meningitis with the potential to cause large epidemics.
The health authorities have deployed an initial emergency team, and with the support of the World Health Organization (WHO), efforts are underway to quickly ramp up the response.
A crisis response committee has been set up in Banalia, the community affected by the outbreak, as well as in Kisangani, the capital of Tshopo, to accelerate the outbreak control efforts. WHO has provided medical supplies in Banalia and plans to deploy more experts and resources.
“Meningitis is a serious infection and a major public health challenge. We are moving fast, delivering medicines and deploying experts to support the government’s efforts to bring the outbreak under control in the shortest possible time,” said Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa.
More than 100 patients are already receiving treatment at home and in health centres in Banalia. Meningitis is transmitted among people through droplets of respiratory or throat secretions from infected people.
Close and prolonged contact or living in close quarters with an infected person facilitates the spread of the disease. Although people of all ages can catch the disease, it mainly affects babies, children and young people.
“We are scaling up control measures within the community and rapidly investigating suspected cases in surrounding localities to treat patients and curb potentially widespread infections,” said Dr Amédée Prosper Djiguimdé, WHO Representative in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
More than 1.6 million people aged between 1 and 29 years were vaccinated in a massive campaign in 2016 in Tshopo, which lies in the African meningitis belt that runs across the continent from Senegal to Ethiopia and comprises 26 countries. The African meningitis belt is the most vulnerable globally to recurrent outbreaks.
Meningitis outbreaks have occurred in several provinces of the Democratic Republic of Congo in the past. In 2009, an outbreak in Kisangani infected 214 people and caused 15 deaths—a case fatality ratio of 8%.
Meningitis is potentially fatal and is a medical emergency. Admission for treatment is necessary and appropriate antibiotic treatment must be started as soon as possible. Over the years, major improvements have been made on vaccines, which are specific to the type of meningitis.
In November 2020, the World Health Assembly—the global health policy-setting body—approved a roadmap for a meningitis-free world by 2030, with three key objectives: elimination of bacterial meningitis, reduction of vaccine-preventable bacterial meningitis by 50% and deaths by 70%, as well as reduction of disability and improvement of quality of life after meningitis.