While the world watches Ebola, Meningitis continues to kill in West Africa.

“This year alone, there have been 17,000 cases of meningitis in Nigeria, with nearly 1,000 deaths”.

It’s a statement that jumped out at me watching a video from this summer’s Aspen Ideas Festival by my former University of Michigan Public Health student Utibe Effiong.

With the current focus on Ebola, it’s easy to forget that West African countries like Nigeria are facing other disease outbreaks.  The stats above are from UNICEF and date back to March this year – there’s not a not else beyond them that is visible in a quick Google search, as the return feed is swamped by Ebola articles.  As of March 8 2014 there had been 22,955 cases of meningitis in West Africa, and 1,374 reported deaths.  Nigeria was the most affected country at the time, with 17,462 cases and 950 deaths.

Utibe trained as a MD in Nigeria, and suffered from meningitis as a young person.  He is currently working at the intersection of global environmental health and infectious diseases, and tells a compelling and personal story about his dreams for the future in this 4 minute talk (transcript below if you are more of a reader than a watcher).

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Transcript:

I remember this as if it was just yesterday. I had walked about a mile, to fetch drinking water, and at the tap, Chukwudi, an older neighbor, asked me what I was going to be when I grew up.

Without thinking, I said I was going to be a medical doctor, and even though I was just ten years of age and a kid from a poor neighborhood, that dream was real to me, because my dad had taught me to believe in myself, and I believed that I could conquer any obstacle to my dream, to make the world a better place.

But nine years later, as I traveled twelve hours on a bus, from Lagos to Calabar, within weeks, I became ill. My dream literally died, as soon as it became real.

Crunching headaches, burning fevers, but yet, I went to class. At any costs, I wanted to be at medical school. But I died. I lapsed into a coma, and I remained unresponsive for two weeks. When I came back to life, I had lost my hearing to complications of meningitis.

Meningitis is common in northern Nigeria. And it’s because northern Nigeria lies in the climate zone known as the Meningitic Belt. This climate zone extends from the shores of Senegal in the west, to the hills of Ethiopia in the east, running across the northern aspects of West Africa. And in this region, every year, thousands of young adults and children get ill with meningitis. Ten percent of them die, no matter what you do.

I was one of the few that survived, and for that age, I was lucky.

I had never been to the north of my country, but when I traveled between Lagos and Calabar, which are both in the south, it was a time of unusual heat. The climate had changed. And I wonder, was climate change widening the belt, and it extended to the south of our country. And was that why I got meningitis? Was I vaccinated? Was that vaccine of any good?

Now, I dream. I dream again of doing things to stop this from happening. Because I returned to medical school, I became a physician. I am now a researcher in public health. But reality still goes on. And this year, as we speak, Nigeria is battling the worst outbreak of Meningitis in recent years. This year alone, there have been 17,000 cases, with nearly 1,000 deaths. But like I said, I dream.

I now work at the intersection of global environmental health and infectious diseases, because I’ve always wondered, what is the connection between climate change and human health. And my work is now very fulfilling. That’s why I dream. I dream of a day when tapping our resources does not pose any danger to human health. I dream of a day when everybody has access to universal primary healthcare.

But in my country, poverty, lack of education, lack of political will, and religious extremism by groups such as Boko Haram have impeded the delivery of good healthcare. But I still dream. And I know that as we walk together, this dream will come true.

Thank you.

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