New meningitis vaccine expected to have big impact in Africa

Dec 6, 2010 (CIDRAP News) – A cheap new vaccine for bacterial meningitis debuted today with the launching of an immunization drive in the West African country of Burkina Faso, in the first stage of an effort that could rid sub-Saharan Africa of the primary cause of meningitis, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced.

MenAfriVac, a vaccine specifically designed for Africa, "is expected to help health workers eliminate meningococcal A epidemics in the 25 countries of the meningitis belt, stretching from Senegal in the west to Ethiopia in the east," the WHO said. Such epidemics hit the region every 7 to 14 years, and there were 88,000 cases with more than 5,000 deaths in 2009, the statement said.

More than a million cases of meningitis have been reported in Africa over the past 20 years, with more than 80% of them involving the group A strain targeted by the vaccine, the New York Times reported yesterday.

MenAfriVac costs less than 50 cents a dose. The WHO said the vaccine gives African health authorities an affordable tool that protects children as young as 1 year and confers longer-term protection than vaccines now in use.

The vaccine was developed by a partnership between the WHO and the Seattle-based nonprofit group PATH, with support from the Gates Foundation. The Times report said it uses a technology that was devised by scientists at the US Food and Drug Administration and was provided by the US government in return for only token royalties.

The vaccine is manufactured by the Serum Institute of India, the WHO said. In the past Africans have waited up to 20 years to use vaccines developed in industrialized countries, but MenAfriVac is being introduced in Africa first.

WHO Director-General Dr. Margaret Chan said the vaccine could save nearly 150,000 lives by 2015 and that epidemic meningitis "could become a thing of the past." The Times report, however, noted that the vaccine will not eliminate meningitis in Africa, because it works only against the group A strain.

The GAVI Alliance has contributed $85 million to the effort to eliminate meningoccal A meningitis in Africa, but $475 million more is needed to protect people throughout Africa's meningitis belt, the WHO said.

The Times report said the effort to find an effective new vaccine began after a meningitis epidemic in 1996 and 1997 sickened more than 250,000 Africans, killing 25,000 and disabling 50,000.

The WHO said clinical trials of the vaccine began in 2005 and have shown it to be safe and highly effective. The agency certified in June that the vaccine meets international standards.

Introduction of MenAfriVac in Burkina Faso will be followed closely by its introduction in Mali and Niger, two other countries hit hard by meningitis, the WHO said.

See also:

Dec 6 WHO statement

Dec 4 New York Times story

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