THE current meningitis epidemic in Ethiopia shows no signs of abating, according to a CAFOD worker just back from the country.
Richard Miller, Africa projects officer for the agency, said some health workers within the country were putting the number of dead as high as 30,000, despite Ethiopian Government reports that only 500 had died.
"There is no doubt that the outbreak is much worse than was first realised. In one area alone, Welayita, about 8,000 people have died," he explained.
There was an annual epidemic of meningitis in Ethiopia, he said, but this year's had provided particularly virulent. Every region of the country except one, Assab, had been affected. and one in ten who contracted the disease was dying.
Mr Miller said the Catholic Church was setting up clinics in schools and community centres to help deal with the crisis, and that some of these clinics were taking in between 20 and 30 patients each day.
He had visited some clinics during his three-week stay, he said, and the good news was that the disease was treatable if patients got medical help early enough.
Patients were being treated with injections of a strain of penicillin, and most were reacting well. "If people manage to reach clinics in time, their chances are good," said Mr Miller. The only further problem, he added, was that supplies of the drug were falling low in Europe, and it might become difficult for charities to send more of it into Ethiopia.
In addition, he said, many people were being vaccinated against the disease — the Government has appealed for 9 million doses of vaccine, and to date has received half of this amount.
CAFOD and Christian Aid last week joined forces to airlift 75,000 doses of the meningitis vaccine, plus drugs to fight the disease. "Our main concern now is for the people in the northern parts of the country who, because of the civil war, cannot be reached with medical supplies," said Mr Miller.
Apart from the meningitis, Mr Miller said he had seen hopeful signs during his travels around the country. "Last year's famine relief operation was very successful because although there was a serious food deficit due to failed rains, there was no mass starvation and none of the scene we all remember from 1984," he said.
"What it shows is that if the international community responds to the early warnings instead of waiting for starving people to appear on TV screens, then food can be delivered in time to avert much of the suffering."
"In many ways it was a textbook relief operation hampered only by the war going on in the north of the country, and even there we didn't get reports of mass starvation."
The overwhelming need now, said Mr Miller, was for long-term development projects. The infrastructure — particularly the roads and transport system were nowhere near good enough to cope with another major crisis if the rains failed again, but if projects got underway now the people might have a chance next time round.
In the last four years international donors had contributed 1.16 US billion dollars worth of emergency help plus 3.8 million tonnes of food to Ethiopia. "That is an incredible figure and if only it could be matched by long-term development funds much could be achieved," said Mr Miller.
One agricultural project he had seen, in Zway in Southern Shoa, had shown results in just a year.