Today, April 24th, is World Meningitis Day. Meningitis is a major cause of child mortality, much of which is vaccine preventable. To mark this important day, we have invited the Meningitis Research Foundation to blog about the disease and talk about their work to save lives from this frightening disease in Malawi. To find out more about World Meningitis Day, please visit the Confederation of Meningitis Organizations (COMO) here.

By Meningitis Research Foundation

Meningitis in Malawi

Children at Healthy Center, Phalombe, Malawi

Children at Healthy Center, Phalombe, Malawi. Photo by Matt Feldman / IVAC

In Malawi, meningitis is far more common than in industrialized countries, and rates of death from meningitis are unacceptably high compared to other countries in sub-Saharan Africa. In children under 5 years old, who are the most vulnerable to meningitis, two thirds of those affected die from the illness, which contributes to the high childhood mortality in Malawi.

Although meningitis vaccines are having a tremendous impact in many countries in Africa, they do not yet provide the complete solution for meningitis in Malawi. Since Hib vaccine was introduced in 2002, Hib meningitis declined but has not been eradicated. Pneumococcal vaccine has also been recently introduced in Malawi, but does not protect against all strains causing pneumococcal meningitis, and many other common bacterial causes of meningitis in Malawi are not covered by currently available vaccines.

Barriers to Receiving Treatment

As vaccine programs are implemented and new vaccines are developed, it is just as important to treat the people who are affected by meningitis now. With this in mind, Meningitis Research Foundation (MRF) funded research in Blantyre, a city in the south of the country, investigating the barriers preventing timely treatment of meningitis. The study found a lack of access to knowledge about meningitis, its symptoms and the importance of early treatment amongst health providers and the general public.

Patients can also be delayed by transport costs and other barriers, meaning that they do not reach hospital until the disease is already very advanced. Unfortunately, when patients do reach health care centers, there may be further problems getting access to the care they need. Treatment is delayed in 25% of meningitis cases, because they are initially misdiagnosed as malaria.  

Action Meningitis Project

Meningitis Research Foundation has initiated Action Meningitis, a project in Blantyre, to break down these barriers to treatment, improve healthcare delivery and treatment rates, and ultimately to save lives of Malawians affected by meningitis. 

The Action Meningitis project will target health providers to improve early recognition of meningitis and other bacterial infections, preventing misdiagnosis and prompting action for seriously ill patients. Mobile Health (mHealth) will increase accessibility of information using mobile phones and an electronic treatment pathway to improve diagnosis and appropriate treatment of patients.

Action Meningitis will also provide community awareness messages and symptoms information to the general public, particularly for mothers and care givers of young children. A series of radio programs will be broadcast across the country aiming to reduce meningitis deaths by raising the understanding of meningitis and bacterial infections, and to encourage communities to take action on health issues. Community groups will help develop suitable and comprehensive public awareness information that will be made available in various local languages.

Action Meningitis will also provide communities with bicycle ambulances to help get people to health care centres for medical attention and improve early treatment rates.

Future Impact

MRF is partnering with the Malawi-Liverpool-Wellcome Trust, Medic Mobile, Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital and the Ministry of Health in Malawi to develop the project in consultation with Health Care Workers as they will have a key role in making Action Meningitis effective and sustainable over the long term, while the participation of community groups will continue to ensure its relevance and benefit to the wider population of Malawi. Through these efforts, we are aiming to lessen meningitis’ hold on the country each year as we mark World Meningitis Day.