Research identifies funding as a major barrier to life-saving meningitis awareness

18 Jun 2024
Research identifies funding as a major barrier to life-saving meningitis awareness

UNICEF and Meningitis Research Foundation publish findings and framework on health communication in Africa’s ‘Meningitis Belt’ 

Around the globe, meningitis remains a devastating and debilitating disease, which can kill within hours.  

Effective treatments and vaccines against some of the main causes of meningitis do exist. However, progress to defeat meningitis is behind other vaccine-preventable diseases. This is particularly true in the Meningitis Belt - 26 countries stretching across Africa where there is a high risk of meningitis epidemics. 

Yet, despite its prevalence, the complexities of the disease and its effects can make it a difficult subject to communicate, hampering communities’ access to life-saving knowledge.  

To address this, Meningitis Research Foundation and its global membership network (the Confederation of Meningitis Organisations) have partnered with UNICEF to conduct primary research. It examines how communication resources are used in the Meningitis Belt to deliver crucial messages about the signs, symptoms and risks of meningitis, as well as the importance of immunisation to protect individuals and communities. This work is supported by a collective of global health organisations, who are working together to support advocacy to defeat meningitis, including PATH, Médecins Sans Frontières and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.   

This research, published today, “Meningitis health communications: examining channels, messaging and best practice in the African Meningitis Belt”, analyses evidence from professionals across the region, identifying existing best practice and barriers in communicating about meningitis.

Front cover of the health communications report

The research has found that messaging on signs and symptoms of meningitis is limited, meaning low awareness of the risks of the disease and the vaccines available to prevent it. Funding gaps were consistently identified as a major barrier to this life-saving communication work.    

This research is being published at timely point. In the past few months, there have been meningitis outbreaks in Nigeria and Niger as well as cases identified in the UK, France and the United States amongst travellers returning from the Hajj and Umrah pilgrimages in Saudi Arabia.    

Yet, more tools exist to defeat meningitis today than ever before. In March 2024, the World Health Organization (WHO) and partners began the rollout of the new MenFive® vaccine in Nigeria which protects people against five of the main strains of bacterial meningitis. Its use has now been recommended by WHO across the entire Meningitis Belt. And in April 2024, advocates celebrated the first-ever WHO high-level meeting on meningitis. At that event, WHO Director-General, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, stated that consigning the Meningitis Belt to history is possible and would be one of the greatest successes in human history.   

This progress is guided by the WHO’s Global Road Map to Defeat Meningitis by 2030 - the first global plan dedicated to reducing the impact of meningitis worldwide. The Road Map was published in 2021 and its investment case was launched at the high-level meeting in April 2024. At that high-level meeting, the WHO underlined the importance of sufficient resourcing to enable increased awareness of meningitis symptoms, to support effective diagnosis and treatment, and to conduct research into communication that fosters behavioural change.  

Today’s publication is a step toward goals on awareness and communication. This primary research translates findings (gathered from health agencies, healthcare professionals and civil society organisations across the Meningitis Belt) into practical learnings to enable communities to better protect themselves against meningitis. The communication framework, developed by this research, draws on the direct experiences of those working in the Meningitis Belt, spotlights best practice and is the first regional framework aimed at supporting communication around meningitis. 

The report aims to set out a clear and usable path for effective and impactful health communication. Its goal is to ensure effective, evidence-based communication tools across the region, whilst also recognising the critical need for localisation in order to increase awareness and understanding about the devastating impacts of meningitis.   

UNICEF’s Associate Director and Chief of Immunisation, Dr Ephrem Tekle Lemango, said: “Robust communication strategies are essential in getting information, advice and guidance to the people who most need it. By strengthening health communication and engagement techniques and continuing our research to monitor progress and deepen our understanding, we have good reason to envisage a future free from meningitis epidemics.”  

Meningitis Research Foundation and the Confederation of Meningitis Organisations’ Chief Executive, Vinny Smith, said: “To defeat meningitis by 2030, we need well-resourced, usable tools in the hands of the communicators who work with those communities most impacted by this disease.  

This research has found that a lack of funding for health communication is impacting the capacity of those working in the Meningitis Belt to develop and disseminate crucial, life-saving communications. The publication of the WHO’s investment case is the right moment to start raising our voices in pursuit of sufficient resourcing for advocacy and engagement work like this which, alongside groundbreaking innovation such as the recent introduction of the Men5 vaccine in Nigeria, will save lives”.      

This research has also been supported by WHO AFRO. Dr. Andre Bita, WHO’s Regional Meningitis Control Officer, says: “We will only end epidemics of bacterial meningitis if we all know the signs, symptoms and risks.

The publication of Meningitis Research Foundation and UNICEF’s research today offers a new tool to deliver information to the people who need it. So many people work tirelessly across the Meningitis Belt to defeat this disease and the framework will offer a usable, evidence-based tool to support their life-saving work.  

Awareness-raising initiatives are a critical part of the WHO’s Road Map to Defeat Meningitis by 2030 and this work demonstrates the power of partnership and collaboration in bringing about an end to this deadly disease.

All 194 WHO Member States have committed to defeating meningitis by 2030. Now investment is needed to not only reduce the avoidable pain and suffering caused by meningitis but to enable better health outcomes beyond meningitis.”

Read the report, including its communication framework, at:

This work has been carried out by Meningitis Research Foundation and the Confederation of Meningitis Organisations in partnership with UNICEF, supported by the PATH, Médecins Sans Frontières and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. 

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This research is part of our Race to 2030 programme that supports advocates in the journey to defeat meningitis. Find out more here.

Give researchers the clues to help defeat meningitis
Give researchers the clues to help defeat meningitis
£160/€190/$214 decodes the genetic information in a sample of meningococcal bacteria. This information helps us to track new forms of meningitis and campaign to introduce new vaccines.