NIAMEY - A meningitis epidemic that broke out in January in Niger has killed 75 people so far, the health minister said on Thursday.

The total number of nationwide cases currently stand at 697, the minister Mano Aghali said on state television. More than half of the deaths have occurred in the capital Niamey but the epidemic has spread to all regions of the country, with the exception of southeastern Diffa near the Nigerian border, he added.

A previous report showed that the epidemic had affected 345 people between January 1 and March 29, with 45 fatalities. A vaccination campaign will begin next week in the most affected zones, said Aghali. Authorities have already distributed 13,500 doses of the vaccine.

Niger, one of the world’s poorest countries, is frequently prone to meningitis epidemics because of its position in the ‘meningitis belt’ that stretches from Senegal in the west to Ethiopia in the east, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). The disease - an inflammation of the lining around the brain and spinal cord - can cause death within hours. It is usually bacterial or viral and occasionally is due to fungal infections, although almost any microbe can cause it.

It is highly contagious and symptoms include a sudden rise in temperature, a stiff neck, severe headache and vomiting. Moreover, At least three civilians were killed and nine United Nations peacekeepers seriously injured in a suicide attack on Wednesday at a U.N. base in town of Ansongo in northern Mali, a spokesman for the peacekeeping mission said.

‘A vehicle tried to penetrate the camp and there was an explosion,’ Olivier Salgado told Reuters by telephone from the capital Bamako. He said the casualty figure was provisional as the wounded were still being evacuated.

A Niger security official in Niamey said several Nigerien soldiers taking part in the U.N. mission were wounded in the attack. Mali army spokesman Diarran Kone said the suicide bomber tried to force his way into the camp but was shot. However, his bomb-ladened vehicle exploded. The United Nations has deployed some 10,000 personnel in Mali to help stabilise the Sahel nation, which was overran by al Qaeda-linked Islamists in 2012. The militants were driven out by a French-led intervention in 2013 but there remain pockets of insurgents who have launched numerous attacks on U.N., French and Malian forces as well as civilians.