Africa Close to Eradicating Meningitis A with Cheap, Effective Vaccine

Meningitis A vaccine for Africa, MenAfriVac, was developed in response to a plea for help from ministers of health in sub-Saharan Africa after an outbreak of meningitis A in 1996 infected over 250,000 people and killed over 25,000 in just a few months. The vaccine costs less than US$0.50 a dose and wherever it has been rolled out, meningitis A has disappeared.

According to findings reported in a special collection of 29 articles in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases and in the World Health Organisation (WHO) website, of the 26 countries in the African meningitis belt, 10 still need to fully roll out vaccination.

For a century, epidemics of meningococcal A meningitis, a bacterial infection of the lining of the brain and spinal cord, have swept across 26 countries in sub-Saharan Africa killing and disabling young people every year. The disease is highly feared on the continent; it can kill or cause severe brain damage within hours.

But just five years after an affordable meningitis A vaccine was introduced, its use has led to the control and near elimination of deadly meningitis A disease in the African “meningitis belt.” In 2013, only four laboratory-confirmed cases of meningitis A were reported by the 26 countries in the belt, which stretches across the continent from Senegal to Ethiopia.

Director of Immunisation, Vaccines and Biologicals at the WHO, Dr. Jean-Marie Okwo-Bele, said: “We have nearly eliminated meningitis A epidemics from Africa, but the fact is the job is not yet done. Our dramatic gains against meningitis A through mass vaccination campaigns will be jeopardised unless countries maintain a high level of protection by incorporating the meningitis A vaccine into their routine childhood immunisation schedules.”

The findings are reported in a special collection of 29 articles in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases – with guest editors from the former Meningitis Vaccine Project, a partnership between WHO and the international health non-profit organisation, PATH.

The supplement, titled “The Meningitis Vaccine Project: The development, licensure, introduction and impact of a new Group A meningococcal conjugate vaccine for Africa,” was sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

In the opening article of the supplement, WHO Director-General, Dr. Margaret Chan, together with public health leaders from PATH; United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF); Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance; the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation; and the vaccine manufacturer Serum Institute of India, among others, called the vaccine a “stunning success.”

“Our partnership allowed us to develop an affordable, tailor-made vaccine for use against meningitis A in sub-Saharan Africa in record time and at less than one-tenth the cost of a typical new vaccine,” said Steve Davis, president and Chief Executive Officer of PATH. “The global community should not risk squandering this amazing lifesaving investment.”

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