INTERNATIONAL: WHO drive to raise cash for 'meningitis belt'

GENEVA: The World Health Organisation is spearheading a PR push by NGOs to raise cash to fight a deadly strain of meningitis in Africa.

WHO and three other organisations - the International Federation of the Red Cross, Medicins Sans Frontieres and UNICEF - are seeking to raise almost £7m to create a stockpile of vaccine and drugs.

Geneva-based WHO's in-house communications team is stepping up its PR work surrounding the appeal, which kicked off with events to raise awareness of a new strain, W135, in Burkino Faso - where there has been an outbreak - in late September.

WHO says that should drugs not be obtained, it is possible that thousands of people will die.

Earlier this year, the strain claimed around 1,500 lives in Burkina Faso.

Meningitis outbreaks occur almost every year in this region of Africa - dubbed the 'meningitis belt' - which stretches from Ethiopia in the east to Senegal in the west.

In 2002 so far, there have been around 33,000 cases and 2,500 deaths.

The main message that WHO is pushing is that the disease particularly affects young children.

WHO is seeking to raise awareness of the fact that available vaccines are 'highly effective' and are easy to administer.

WHO communications officer Iain Simpson said potential donors such as governments and foundations would be targeted by a cross-NGO lobbying campaign, should the current PR bid fail to raise the necessary funds.

He said: 'If the media work doesn't (raise the funds), we will move on to put pressure on (potential donors) through our partners.'

Early symptoms of meningitis are fever, nausea and headache, which rapidly progress to cause serious neurological damage, coma and death.

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