Mystery illness in Liberia is Meningitis – Minister

Medical samples from victims of a mysterious disease in Liberia that baffled scientists have tested positive for a type of meningitis, the country’s minister of health said.

A total of 31 cases of the so-called mystery illness have been reported, including 13 deaths in an outbreak linked to the attendance of a religious leader’s funeral.

While the symptoms are different from Ebola, the sudden deaths nevertheless stirred anxiety about an outbreak of the tropical illness which was often spread through burial rituals in the West African epidemic that ended less than a year ago.

Seven specimens from the deceased tested positive for Neisseria meningitis, a particularly contagious type of bacteria, Dr. Bernice Dahn told reporters .“Based on these initial results from the CDC Atlanta (U.S. Center for Disease Control), we believe that we are dealing with a probable outbreak of meningitis in Sinoe, which spread to Montserrado and Grand Bassa counties,” she said.

She also said that the government is investigating options for mass vaccinations against the illness, characterized by swelling of the membranes in the brain and spinal cord. Further laboratory analysis is also under way.

Even though the symptoms of the disease were markedly different from that of the deadly Ebola virus, the sudden deaths sparked fears of a return of the disease which paralyzed the country in 2013.

Liberia was declared free of Ebola by the World Health Organization (WHO) in June 2016. When Ebola broke out in 2014 it killed an estimated 5,000 people and almost shut down the country.

Liberia was the last West African country at the epicentre of the world’s worst outbreak of the disease. Neighbouring Guinea and Sierra Leone also suffered from the outbreak.

Traces of Ebola can hide in survivors’ bodies long after they have recovered, but health experts say the risk of Ebola re-emerging and being transmitted to others is extremely low. Despite that, there is a great deal of stigma around survivors of the virus in West Africa.