THE outbreak of meningitis at Kabompo Secondary School in North-Western Province has been handled clumsily, and information on the status of the school grossly mismanaged.
Everything first started as a rumour about witchcraft, and later spiralled into a riot by pupils and the nearby community members.
The riot last Saturday evening was sparked by the ‘mysterious’ death of three pupils within a space of 10 days, and this opened the way to suspicions of witchcraft at the learning institution.
School property worth colossal sums of money was damaged, as parents hastily withdrew their children from what they regarded as a dangerous situation.
Only 130 pupils from a population of 630 pupils remained at the school following the riot on July 4, 2015.
A teacher at Kabompo Secondary School told the Times of Zambia that some incensed pupils wanted the learning institution ‘cleansed’.
North-Western Province Commissioner of Police, Grace Chipalila said the police had a report that the school was damaged following the death of three pupils from suspected meningitis.
According to Ms Chipalila, the pupils rioted because they suspected witchcraft to have been at the centre of the deaths.
There have been conflicting statements from the ministries of Education and Health on occurrences at the school.
Ministry of Education spokesperson Hillary Chipango told some sections of the media that following the death of the three pupils, their colleagues became wild and destroyed school property while some belongings were stolen.
Mr Chipango, who said ministry of Health officials were investigating the cause of the deaths, repudiated reports that Kabompo Secondary School had been closed.
According to Mr Chipango, the majority of pupils had deserted the learning institution and, therefore, no learning was taking place.
But on July 8, 2015, Health Minister Joseph Kasonde told journalists in Lusaka that Kabompo Secondary School had been closed for two weeks after recording six cases of meningitis which resulted in three deaths.
Dr Kasonde said the first case of meningitis was reported on June 20, 2015 while the sixth case was recorded on July 3.
“Apart from the three deaths, three other pupils from the same school were admitted to Kabompo District Hospital for suspected meningitis.
“The laboratory in Solwezi examined the specimens and confirmed one positive case of meningitis,” he said.
Dr Kasonde said 55 pupils had so far been screened for meningitis and four were referred to Solwezi General Hospital for further assessment.
The Health minister seemed to be in possession of comprehensive information while the Education ministry spokesperson was insisting that investigations were still being carried out.
If Dr Kasonde says the first case of meningitis was reported on June 20, there was sufficient time for both the school and Education ministry authorities to communicate the correct information on the disease to the pupils and their parents.
The riot on July 4, more than 10 days after the first case of meningitis was recorded, is suggestive of the gaps in the communication chain.
Had there been effective communication before the three pupils succumbed to the disease, the riot could have been avoided, along with the laughable claims of witchcraft.
Dr Kasonde said meningococcal meningitis is caused by a bacterium called neisseria meningitides.
It is an acute bacterial disease characterised by a sudden onset of fever, intense headache, nausea and often vomiting and a stiff neck. A rash occasionally appears, especially in light-skinned individuals.
Dr Kasonde, who said meningitis is curable and is treated with antibiotics, explained that the people at risk are children under the age of five years, young adults between 14 and 25 years, and adults above 55 years.
The disease is the main form of bacterial meningitis that causes epidemics in Africa and remains a public health challenge.
It is transmitted by direct human contact, including respiratory droplets from the nose and throats of infected people.
This is where the real challenge is for pupils who deserted Kabompo Secondary School and reunited with their families and community members before they were screened for meningitis.
The possibility of spreading this deadly disease to other people is high.
Dr Kasonde said the district community medical office and the school management had set out to inform all pupils from the school to report to the nearest health centres for chemoprophylaxis, which is meant to protect them from developing the disease.
But it is difficult to both inform and monitor pupils who have gone to their various homes in different places, some outside of Kabompo District.
Meningitis outbreaks often make the news because of the highly contagious nature of the disease.
Although bacterial meningitis is rare, it can spread quickly, forcing health officials to go into overdrive to contain it.
Even if some people think the bacteria that causes meningitis is airborne, it takes more than simply breathing the same air as someone who has a meningitis infection to become infected, says Laura E. Johnson, an infectious disease physician at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, in the United States of America.
The bacteria reside in droplets of fluid in the throat and nose and can leave the body when an infected person sneezes, laughs, coughs, or talks.
If one is close enough to breathe in the droplets or get them on the hands and then touch the nose or mouth, one can get a meningitis infection.
“Although it’s not as easy to catch as the common cold, you should still take precautions if someone in your home, at your job, or at school has a meningitis infection,” Dr Johnson says in Everyday Health, written by Marie Suszysnki and medically reviewed by Lindsey Marcellin.
Preventive measures include washing hands regularly, and to avoid sharing utensils, plates, cups, towels, water bottles, cigarettes, lipstick, or anything that goes in the mouth with someone who is infected with meningitis.
People with meningitis can lower the risk of spreading the disease by keeping a safe distance when talking, and by covering their mouths when coughing, sneezing, and laughing.
If someone with a meningitis infection has neisseria meningitides, it is standard procedure for anyone who has been in close contact with the person to receive antibiotics.
Dr Johnson further states that if the patient is a student, anyone who has been in close contact at school should also receive antibiotics.
Health and education authorities should, therefore, make concerted efforts to spread the correct information to all the pupils who have left Kabompo Secondary School for their homes.
There is a critical lesson to learn from the Kabompo debacle: The pupils cannot in any way justify their riotous behaviour, but all the concerned parties should in the future learn to manage information on such crucial matters as the outbreak of meningitis effectively to avoid misunderstandings.