The government of canton Fribourg is to vaccinate 10,000 children living in the Gruyère region against meningitis C. Seven new cases of the potentially fatal disease have been registered in the area in the past three months.
This is the first such mass vaccination campaign in Switzerland against meningitis, and is a sign of the growing concern surrounding the unusually high incidence of the disease in the region.
"It is a worrying situation which calls for extra vigilance," the chief cantonal medical officer, Georges Demierre, told swissinfo.
"We've a long way to go before we can call it an epidemic, but we could not let the situation go unchecked. We wanted to ensure that the situation remained localised. If it spreads, it will be much harder to get under control," he said.
Demierre said cases of meningitis in the Gruyère district had reached the level of a "hyper endemic", that is more than 10 cases per 100,000 inhabitants, at which point a vaccination programme has to be considered.
Along with the two small regions of Albula in canton Graubünden and Leukerbad in the Valais, Gruyère has the highest rate of meningitis infection in Switzerland. Of the 190 cases of bacterial infection registered in the country last year, 25 were in Gruyère. One child died as a result.
So far this year, seven children - out of a total population of 37,000 - have been infected in Gruyère, passing the critical threshold set by the Federal Health Office.
All children between the age of two months and 19 years in the district will have the chance to be vaccinated against meningococcal C. This amounts to some 10,000 doses.
The Federal health authorities have given the canton permission to import 800 doses of a new vaccine from Britain for those children aged under 18 months.
"This is an exceptional measure for an exceptional local situation," the cantonal medical officer," Demierre said. He added that the vaccinations would be "free and non-obligatory, but very strongly recommended."
"We have no idea why the incidence should be so high in Gruyère. The areas immediately bordering Gruyère have very low rates," he said.
The campaign, which will last until February 23, will cost the cantonal government around SFr 240,000 ($147,239).
One of the advantages of meningitis C is that a vaccine exists. One is not available for meningitis B, which until a few years ago, was the more prevalent form of the disease in Switzerland.
For the time being, the Federal Health Office is not recommending meningitis C vaccinations for other parts of Switzerland.
by Roy Probert