Burkina Faso today became the first country to begin a nationwide campaign to introduce a new vaccine that promises to rid the entire region of the primary cause of epidemic meningitis, the United Nations health agency announced.
The first vaccine designed specifically for Africa, MenAfriVac 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 World Health Organization (WHO) said in a news release.
"With a one-time investment to vaccinate populations in all countries of the meningitis belt, nearly 150,000 young lives could be saved by 2015, and epidemic meningitis could become a thing of the past. This is within reach. We must not fail," said WHO Director-General Margaret Chan.
Meningitis bacteria, which affect the lining surrounding the brain and spinal cord, are transmitted from person to person through droplets of respiratory or throat secretions. Close and prolonged contact such as kissing, sneezing and coughing, and sharing eating or drinking utensils, facilitates the spread. The disease can result in brain damage, hearing loss or learning disability in 10 to 20 per cent of survivors.
MenAfriVac, priced at less than 50 cents per dose, was developed by Meningitis Vaccine Project (MVP) - a partnership between WHO and the global non-profit organization PATH, with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Using a unique public-private partnership model, the development of MenAfriVac cost only $50 million - a fraction of the amount usually required to develop and bring a new vaccine to market, according to WHO.
"From day one, the development of this vaccine has been a collaboration between industry, institutions, and individuals driven by public health needs," said Marc LaForce, Director of the Meningitis Vaccine Project. "The successful development of a vaccine in less than a decade is almost unheard of."
Christopher J. Elias, President and CEO of PATH said the model created through the development of this vaccine is "groundbreaking" and could not have been accomplished without the joint efforts of the African Ministers of Health and the many other global partners.
"MenAfriVac may well serve as a model for developing vaccines in the future to combat other deadly diseases in low-resource settings," he added.
The new vaccine has several advantages over vaccines currently used to combat meningitis epidemics in Africa, noted WHO. It protects children as young as one, and it is expected to both protect from the disease for significantly longer than the vaccine now used to combat epidemics, and to reduce infection and transmission.
The agency added that the rapid development of the vaccine is in large part due to the commitment of the Serum Institute of India, Ltd., the vaccine manufacturer. Africans have in the past waited as long as 20 years for a vaccine to travel from the industrialized north to the nations of the south. In this case, MenAfriVac will be introduced in Africa before it is distributed anywhere else.
More than 12 million people in Burkina Faso are set to receive the new vaccine by the end of the year. MenAfriVac will then be introduced in Mali and Niger, two other hyper-endemic countries in the meningitis belt.