Red Cross officials warned Thursday that 14 African countries could face one of the worst meningitis epidemics in recent memory and announced prevention campaigns in the affected areas.
"The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies is launching meningitis prevention activities in 14 countries across Africa to get ready for what could be one of the worst meningitis epidemics in a decade," a statement said.
"The first indications of an epidemic could appear as early as February-March 2008," it said.
The affected countries stretch from the east to west coasts of Africa, taking in Burkina Faso, Benin, Chad, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Sudan, Togo and Uganda.
The Red Cross said it would spend nearly one million Swiss francs (602,000 euros/867,000 dollars) in a four-month awareness drive, which would include training some 25,000 volunteers in community-based first aid.
Meningitis is the inflammation of the protective membranes covering the central nervous system. While some forms are mild and resolve on their own, meningitis is a potentially serious condition owing to the proximity of the inflammation to the brain and spinal cord and can lead to death, if untreated.
"Meningococcal meningitis is one of the most feared epidemic diseases in Africa because of its rapid onset, high fatality rates and long-term impacts such as brain damage and deafness affecting many survivors," Jari Vainio, senior Red Cross public health officer said.
The Red Cross is part of an international coordination group trying to cope with the shortage of meningitis vaccines by sending stocks of vaccine as soon as an epidemic is identified.
Globally, there are only about seven million doses of vaccine for a potentially-affected population of 80 million.