A meningitis outbreak in Nigeria is more serious than initially feared with the death toll rising more than sixfold over the past two months, the Health Ministry said on Wednesday.
Deaths from the epidemic have risen to 2,148 since the first case was recorded in December from 333 announced by the health minister in early March. The number of reported cases has climbed more than eightfold to 47,902 over the same period.
About two-thirds of Nigeria's 36 states are affected by the epidemic, the ministry said. Nigeria is Africa's most populous country with a population of more than 140 million.
UNICEF said last month that more than 2,500 people had been killed by meningitis this year in West and Central Africa in what could be the worst epidemic for five years. Nigeria, Niger, Burkina Faso and Chad are considered Africa's high-risk zone.
Meningitis is the inflammation of the tissue surrounding the brain and spinal cord, and can be caused by viral or bacterial infections. It spreads mainly through kisses, sneezes, coughs and in close living quarters.
The meningitis death toll in Nigeria since December is almost 50 times the number of people killed worldwide by the H1N1 swine flu virus. But the speed with which it has spread underscores the potential dangers if swine flu reaches Africa.
Basic healthcare is limited in rural parts of Nigeria, where most people live on less than $2 a day, despite the country's huge oil resources. Many Nigerians fear that an outbreak of swine flu would be devastating.
The Health Ministry said no suspected case of swine flu had been recorded in the country but that it had taken steps to contain any outbreak.
The worst recent meningitis epidemic in West and Central Africa occurred in 1996-97 when an estimated 100,000 people were infected in Nigeria and 50,000 in Niger.