Several West African countries are tackling significant diphtheria outbreaks, notably in Nigeria, where health authorities have initiated mass vaccination campaigns to address substantial immunity gaps against the disease.
In Nigeria, the ongoing outbreak since December 2022 has seen 11,640 cases diagnosed, resulting in 573 fatalities. However, experts suggest the actual toll might be higher, with undetected cases in various states where detection capabilities are limited.
Niger has reported 865 cases with 37 deaths as of October, while Guinea recorded 497 cases with 58 fatalities since its outbreak commenced in June.
“Ifedayo Adetifa, head of the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control, highlighted, “This is the largest outbreak we have had, based on historical records,” speaking to The Associated Press.
The highly contagious bacterial infection has spread across 20 of Nigeria’s 36 states, largely due to a significant historical gap in vaccination coverage, as noted by Doctors Without Borders (MSF), a French medical organization.
Both Nigeria and Guinea exhibit alarmingly low diphtheria immunization rates—42% and 47% respectively among children under 15—far below the 80-85% threshold recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO) for community protection.
The situation is compounded by a global shortage of the diphtheria vaccine, with heightened demand to combat outbreaks, according to MSF. Dr. Dagemlidet Tesfaye Worku from MSF in Ivory Coast emphasized the urgent need for a substantial vaccination scale-up to address the crisis.
Nigeria is intensifying targeted population vaccinations and supporting states to enhance their capacity in detecting and managing cases, shared Adetifa from the Nigeria CDC. However, challenges persist, particularly in states like Kano, which accounts for over 75% of Nigeria’s cases but has only two diphtheria treatment centers, according to Abubakar Labaran Yusuf, the state’s health official.
“Accessing treatment becomes challenging when people have to travel long distances,” Adetifa acknowledged, underscoring the ongoing difficulties faced by affected regions.