Meningococcal meningitis is a highly contagious bacterial form of meningitis – a serious inflammation of the meninges – the thin lining that surrounds the brain and spinal cord.

Meningococcal meningitis is a bacterial infection of the thin membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord. It can cause sudden and intense headaches, fever, nausea, vomiting, sensitivity to light and stiffness of the neck. Death can follow within hours of the onset of symptoms. Even with treatment, approximately 10 per cent of people infected will die. Up to 50 per cent of people infected will die without treatment.

Six strains of the bacterium Neisseria meningitidis (A, B, C, W135, X and Y) are known to cause meningitis. People can be carriers without showing symptoms and transmit the bacteria when they cough or sneeze. Cases are diagnosed through the examination of a sample of spinal fluid and treatment consists of specific antibiotics. However, even with treatment, 10 per cent or more patients will die and as many as one in five survivors may suffer from after effects, including hearing loss and learning disabilities.

Meningitis occurs throughout the world, but the majority of infections and deaths are in Africa, particularly across the ‘meningitis belt’, an east–west geographical strip from Ethiopia to Senegal, where epidemics are most likely to be caused by meningococcus A. A new vaccine against this strain provides protection for at least 10 years and even prevents healthy carriers from transmitting the infection. Large preventive vaccination campaigns have now been carried out in Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Ghana, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal and Sudan and have resulted in a decrease in the number of new cases. The vaccination campaigns have helped to stop the cycle of deadly meningococcal A epidemics in the region, but smaller-scale outbreaks caused by other strains continue to be recorded. An epidemic in Niger in 2015, which was an extension of an epidemic in neighbouring Nigeria, was the first large meningococcal C epidemic ever recorded in the country.

MSF vaccinated 326,100 people against meningitis in response to outbreaks in 2015.