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DEVELOPMENT REPORT - Weather Experts to Aid Africa's 'Meningitis Belt'

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This is the VOA Special English Development Report.

Bacterial meningitis must be treated with antibiotics as soon as possible or the infection can cause hearing loss and brain damage. It can also kill.

File photo of a girl being vaccinated against meningitis at a medical center in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso
File photo of a girl being vaccinated against meningitis at a medical center in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso

The world's largest recorded outbreak took place along Africa's so-called meningitis belt in nineteen ninety-six and 'ninety-seven. More than two hundred fifty thousand people got sick. Twenty-five thousand of them died. This area where outbreaks take place from time to time extends from Senegal in the west to Ethiopia in the east.

Leaders of nations along the meningitis belt agreed in September to support a campaign to protect their populations with a new vaccine. The hope is to immunize two hundred fifty million people by two thousand fifteen.

The World Health Organization will provide technical aid with the new vaccine. The program will also get help from weather experts. One of the partners in the effort is the National Center for Atmospheric Research, in the American state of Colorado.

The center will make long-term weather predictions along the meningitis belt. Local health officials can then plan the best times to vaccinate people. The disease often strikes during dry, dusty weather.

One possible reason is that dust can affect the breathing system and people may be more open to infection. Another theory is that people may stay in their homes more during the dry season, making it easier to catch meningitis from others. The epidemics usually stop when the summer rainy season begins.

Weather experts will provide fourteen-day forecasts of atmospheric conditions. The weather program will start in Ghana in two thousand nine.

The center in Colorado is managed by a group known as UCAR, the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research. Rajul Pandya, director of UCAR's Community Building Program, says vaccine supplies are limited. So it is important to identify areas where the rainy season is beginning.

That way the vaccine could be given to people in the remaining dry areas -- and not given in areas where rains will stop an epidemic.

Rajul Pandya says Ghana was chosen because of good cooperation and the country's history of meningitis epidemics. He says that in the last ten years, better computers and observation methods have greatly improved the ability to predict the coming of a rainy season.

And that's the VOA Special English Development Report, written by Jerilyn Watson.

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