A deadly meningitis outbreak is taking hold in one of Nigeria’s poorest regions

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Image: AP Photo/Jerome Delay, file
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Since late last year, northern Nigeria has been subject to an outbreak of cerebrospinal meningitis, with nearly 3,000 cases recorded—including 366 deaths. Zamfara, the worst-hit state, has recorded over 200 deaths.

Zamfara, a conservative and poor underdeveloped state in northwestern Nigeria, is vulnerable to such outbreaks and the overwhelmed state governor says it’s unlike previous outbreaks. “What we used to know as far as meningitis is concerned is the type A virus. The World Health Organization, WHO, has carried out vaccinations against this type A virus not just in Zamfara, but many other states,” governor Abdulaziz Yari said to reporters on Apr. 4.

It’s got the point Yari is even blaming sin for the outbreak, claiming it’s happening because “people have turned away from God.” “Because people refused to stop their nefarious activities, God now decided to send Type C virus, which has no vaccination.”

Meningitis can be caused by a range of pathogens and the current outbreak in Nigeria is a rare form of the disease. So Yari, a devout Muslim serving his second term as governor, is right about that. Attributing it to a higher power, though, is not helpful for public health.

Yari says while vaccines are being distributed all citizens “need to do is repent and everything will be alright.” In northern Nigeria, where illiteracy rates are high and religious conservatism is prevalent, political leaders like Yari can quite easily win elections while postulating harebrained religious theories.

Thankfully, Nigeria’s Center for Disease Control (NCDC) is not basing its response on the governor’s religious-doomsday claims. In the wake of the outbreak, the NCDC says half a million doses of the meningitis C vaccine have been deployed in the most affected states, with an additional 800,000 doses expected to come from Britain, although there is no stated timeframe for their arrival. Still, that might not be enough as Zamfara alone is said to require around 3 million doses to quell the outbreak.

While the strain is different this time, meningitis outbreaks have been frequent in Nigeria. In 1996, in one of the worst-ever outbreaks of the disease, a total of 8,423 cases were reported with 1,181 deaths recorded.