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Diphtheria outbreak spreads across West Africa

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Elvis Adjetey
Elvis Adjetey
Elvis Adjetey is an experienced African journalist who has worked with top media brands in Ghana where he is based.

Health workers are struggling to contain what they say is one of the worst outbreaks of diphtheria in West Africa.

Apart from Nigeria which reported cases earlier, the outbreak has now spread to Niger and Guinea. Medecins San Frontieres (MSF) says these nations are currently facing some of the most severe outbreaks of this vaccine-preventable disease ever documented on the continent.

Diphtheria is a bacterial disease it makes hard for patients to breathe and swallow by creating a toxin that kills tissues and attacks cells in the respiratory system.

In the bloodstream, it can damage the nervous system, and cause heart and kidney damage or paralysis, even after recovery


MSF officials have identified the Nigerian state of Kano as the epicentre of the latest outbreak.

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So far, Nigeria has confirmed 9,310 cases and 368 deaths this year. Cases have been reported in the country since May of last year, but in the past few months, the outbreak has spread at an alarming rate, health officials say.

Local, federal, and international bodies have struggled to contain the bacterial disease, with 17,000 suspected cases in Nigeria so far.

At its peak, MSF in Kano reported up to 700 cases a week. This rate dropped in September, but cases are slowly starting to rise again, currently at 500 weekly.

Murjanatu Muhammad, a 30-year-old from Kano, has seen all of her children, 10-year-old Mohammed, eight-year-old Fatima, and twins Jamila and Husseina, aged five, admitted to hospital with diphtheria.

“You can imagine if we didn’t bring these children early enough, we don’t know what would have happened to them,” she told CNN.

For another mother, Firdausa Salisu, her son Auwal Nura has been sick since he was born four years ago and was receiving treatment from a traditional healer who advised against vaccines, his mother said.

“The traditional medicine man that was treating him advised that he should not be vaccinated at the time. By the time he recovered and I wanted him to be vaccinated, I was told he was past the age of receiving the vaccines.”

Situation in Guinea

In October, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported that a diphtheria outbreak in Guinea has sickened at least 538 people. Since July, 58 of the cases have been fatal, for a 10.8% case-fatality rate, with young children the hardest-hit group.

The outbreak is centered in Siguiri prefecture in the northeast, and overpopulation is among the contributing factors, given that the illness, caused by Corynebacterium diphtheria, spreads through direct contact or through the air by respiratory droplets.

The WHO also said diphtheria, pertussis, and tetanus (DPT) vaccine coverage in Guinea is low, at an estimated 47% and is even lower (36%) in the region experiencing the outbreak.

Latest on Niger

On 20 October 2023, the Government of Niger, through the Ministry of Public Health, Population and Social Affairs, declared a diphtheria outbreak.

As of November 02, all eight regions of the country have recorded at least 1 case of diphtheria. A total of 1,838 suspected cases of diphtheria, including 91 deaths (lethality: 5%), have been reported.

The regions of Zinder (1,578 cases) and Agadez (132 cases) are the most impacted, contributing to 86% and 7% of the total caseload, respectively.

47% of positive cases are among children aged 5 to 14 years, 22% of positive cases are aged 12 to 59 months, 2.5% of positive cases are less than 1-year-old and about 28.5% are aged 15 and above.

Since the onset of the outbreak, UNICEF has initiated its response in support of and partnership with the Ministry of Public Health and other partners involved in the response. To date, 50,000 children aged 0 to 14 years have already been vaccinated.

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