Ouagadouogou — The United Nations' World Health Organization and its partners launched an urgent appeal for 11 million euros (US $10.8 million) on Friday to contain potential meningitis outbreaks in Africa.
The appeal was made at the end of a four-day meeting in Ouagadougou, capital of Burkina Faso, at which strategies to contain meningitis outbreaks and secure cheap vaccines were discussed.
WHO said the emergence of the new W-135 strain of meningitis in West Africa earlier this year had given renewed urgency to the search for a more effective and affordable vaccine.
An outbreak of W-135 in Burkina Faso, which began in February and continued until May, infected more than 12,000 people and killed almost 1,500.
Participants at the meeting recommended that countries in "the African meningitis belt", which stretches from Ethiopia to Senegal, be vigilant and detect meningitis cases at an early stage so that treatment could be made available quickly.
It was agreed at Ouagadougou to strengthen the response capacity of laboratories in the region and to stop preventive vaccination against the A and C strains of meningitis that are prevalent in Africa because it is inefficient.
An efficient vaccine would not be available before 2007, according to the WHO.
"The vaccines we have now have a mediocre guarantee of immunisation and it does not immunise children under two," said Daniel Tarantola, senior policy adviser and Director of the organisation's Vaccines and Biologicals department.
"It means the most vulnerable persons are not protected," he added.
WHO was not sure of the efficiency of the current vaccine used to immunise against meningitis A and C, said Tarantola.
"Secondly, we may be short of vaccines where a real epidemic appears," he said. "It is better to stress vigilance and be able to detect epidemics earlier so as to respond quickly and use the vaccine doses appropriately."
WHO and other members of the international coordination group on vaccine provision for meningitis control - including the United Nations Children's Fund, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, and Medecins Sans Frontieres - failed to reach agreement with the pharmaceutical companies Glaxosmithline (GSK) and Aventis Pasteur (AP) at the Burkina Faso meeting on a massive increase in the availability of tetravalent meningitis vaccine.
GSK and AP produce the tetravalent vaccines that protect against four strains of meningitis, including W-135, A and C.
AP, which had representatives at the meeting, said it could not produce the vaccine on a large scale within three to four years. It currently produces two million vaccines a year for the US market at about $50 a dose.
GSK, the world's main Tetravalent producer, did not attend the Ouagadougou meeting but is said to be in further discussions with WHO and its partners.
WHO said it could only purchase 2 million vaccine doses of Tetravalent at $2.75 for 2003 because of financial limitations.
However, five million doses are needed immediately and the estimated requirement over the next five years is 50 million doses.
Even then, the $2.75 at which WHO is to buy available vaccine was still too expensive for African countries, according to the UN organisation and its partners. Negotiations would continue targeting $1 per dose as a cost price for African countries, they said.