The fear of meningococcal meningitis marked my generation: whoever was in the elementary or middle school in Brazil in the 70s will never forget. The disease became an epidemic that lasted six years. I remember it well because my best friend “caught” meningitis in 1976.
The magazine Veja was the first to sound the alarm in 1972 with the cover “the epidemics of disinformation.” Immediately, the military dictatorship forbade any mention of the illness, which helped spread it quicker.
“(The military government) banned mention of the epidemic in the media and did not reveal the number of deaths or cases, for fear that the association between the epidemic and the accelerated growth process could direct attention to the precarious conditions in which the workers lived” (Barreto et al., The Lancet, 2011). We will never know how many children died.
Although there were no published figures, the fear was real: all of us had a friend who died of meningitis. My brother-in-law, a neurosurgeon, would share with us the number of deaths at the hospital where he worked. It was just unbelievable.
There was another reason why the full picture of the epidemic was not known. Each state had its statistics, and no one dared to consolidate. Therefore, nowadays, when you search for scientific articles about the epidemic, only studies by the state are found: São Paulo, Bahia, Amazonas, Santa Catarina, Paraná, and a few more. There is an entire book dedicated to meningococcal meningitis in the city of São Paulo written by someone who was at the forefront of the fight: “The book of meningitis, a disease in the light of the city” by Dr. José Cássio de Moraes, Dra. Rita Barradas Barata and Cristina Fonseca, which can be found in the bookstores online.
The end of the epidemic begins in 1975 with the vaccination of the whole population, thanks to French scientist Charles Mérieux, whose institute produced 90 million doses of vaccine in record time. It is reported that 95% of the people of São Paulo were vaccinated in just four days.
When I worked in marketing for Sanofi Pasteur, I was proud to coordinate the launch of a quadrivalent vaccine against meningococcal meningitis. This project had a special flavor for me, a child who had spent years fearing to die or be disabled by meningitis. And even more: Charles Mérieux had led Pasteur-Mérieux: I was working for the company that had saved Brazil from meningococcal meningitis.
I was also proud to be Brazilian: Brazil’s Unified National Health System (SUS) was an example of transparency and competence in epidemiological data and immunization. In 2009, during the H1N1 swine flu crisis, they created the “Vaccinometer” website to track the evolution of the population’s vaccination. It had such granular information that we could (literally) know the number of pregnant Native-Brazilians in the municipality of a small city in the Amazon who had been vaccinated. I used the Brazilian “Vaccinometer” as a best practice, when we held international meetings at Pasteur.
With all that I went through, one can imagine my disbelief at the Brazilian president Bolsonaro’s attempt to hide the COVID-19’s epidemiological information completely.
The Brazilian healthcare was regressing more than ten years, when the country had micro-geographic and micro-populational data. Worse: it was thrown back 45 years when health data was withheld from the population. Information that could have saved children’s lives.
Thus, Brazil’s healthcare system is faced with the following dilemma: it either reacts against the era of obscurantism that it has entered and rescues its technical competence, or surrenders to the denialism of the president and accepts the politicization of health.
In conclusion, the choice is now Big Data or No Data.