Impact of epidemics in Africa

Disease has far-reaching health and economic effects on individuals, families, and the health system

Distraught young man sitting in bed next to his comatose brother in a rural health center.

Distraught young man looking after his comatose brother in Boussé’s rural health center, Burkina Faso.

A detailed socioeconomic study1 during the 2007 epidemic in Burkina Faso showed that each case of meningitis in a family results in a sudden expenditure of about US$90—what amounts to three or four months of the family's disposable income. Families with few resources cycle inexorably downward to the next level of poverty. In addition, about 25 percent of survivors have long-term aftereffects such as deafness leaving them less likely to be economically productive citizens, and they often become wards of an already financially stretched extended family.

Not captured in the above analysis is the chaos to health systems engendered by a meningitis epidemic. For example, routine services such as immunizations at the health center level cease. In addition, special programs such as poliomyelitis or yellow fever immunization campaigns are delayed. Responding to a meningitis epidemic supersedes all other health-related activities because populations are frightened and demand a response. Managing the clinical needs of actual or suspected meningitis cases and coping with rumors consume all the time that is available to health staff.

Furthermore and most unfortunately, most of the reactive immunization campaigns with polysaccharide vaccines are done too late, when the epidemic wave has already passed. Therefore such campaigns have little to no public health impact, and they are a financial drain on health systems and economies in meningitis belt countries.

1. Colombini A, Ouattara F, Zongo S, Bationo F. Etude socio-économique de l'impact des épidémies de méningite au Burkina Faso. Rapport d'étude. 2008.

Photo: Monique Berlier.