Health For AllWest Africa Battles Diphtheria Outbreak: Urgent Need for Vaccination and Treatment

West Africa Battles Diphtheria Outbreak: Urgent Need for Vaccination and Treatment

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BRUSSELS/ABIDJAN- West Africa is grappling with the worst diphtheria outbreak on record, threatening the lives of thousands. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) calls for immediate action, including mass vaccination campaigns and increased treatment efforts, to avert further loss of life.

Nigeria, where the outbreak originated in December 2022, has recorded nearly 17,000 suspected cases, bearing the brunt of the crisis. However, the disease has also spread to Algeria, Guinea, Mauritania, and Niger.

Underfunding and a lack of prioritization have severely weakened routine vaccination programs in many West African countries, leaving populations vulnerable to vaccine-preventable diseases like diphtheria.

“The many outbreaks of measles we’ve been seeing over the last years were a clear warning sign that the routine vaccination hasn’t reached all children,” says Dr Dagemlidet Tesfaye Worku, emergency medical program manager for MSF in Abidjan, Ivory Coast. “And now we see diphtheria emerge, which is even more worrying.”

Despite the urgency, only Nigeria has initiated a large-scale vaccination campaign. A staggering 65% of diphtheria patients in West Africa have never received a single dose of the vaccine. In some areas of Nigeria, vaccination coverage is as low as 6%, with other regions reporting full vaccination rates of just 10-18%.

Without proper treatment, diphtheria can be fatal for 30-40% of those infected. However, a global shortage of DAT, a critical anti-toxin drug, hinders treatment efforts. Manufacturers, anticipating the effectiveness of vaccination programs, were unprepared for the sudden resurgence of diphtheria outbreaks.

The surge in demand for diphtheria vaccines has also created global supply shortages. Manufacturers will require several months to replenish stocks. If more countries require mass vaccination campaigns, timely access to vaccines could become a major challenge.

Also Read: Is China Facing a Respiratory Illness Outbreak? WHO Seeks More Information

MSF urges authorities to prioritize outbreak response and seek immediate support from international stakeholders and donors. The World Health Organization (WHO), GAVI, and UNICEF should extend technical and financial assistance to affected countries, ensuring adequate vaccine supply. Humanitarian organizations must collaborate to scale up the response, including mass vaccination campaigns in remote and vulnerable communities. Only a concerted global effort can effectively combat this diphtheria outbreak.

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