New Vision (Kampala)

18 November 2012

Uganda: Country to Get Cheaper Meningitis Vaccine

Uganda is one of 26 African countries set to benefit from a cheaper meningitis vaccine that lasts for four days without refrigeration.

The vaccine named 'MenAfriVac' was cleared by World Health Organisation (WHO) at the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene Conference in Atlanta on Wednesday.

The finding gives hope in the fight against meningitis, a disease that kills 450 million people in Africa yearly, mostly children and young adults.

The new vaccine was designed specifically to help eliminate Meningococcal A epidemics from Africa's meningitis belt, which comprises 26 African countries stretching from Senegal in the west to Ethiopia in the east.

Dr Jacinta Sabiiti, the acting programme manager of the Uganda Expanded Programme on Immunisation (UNEPI) said the approval of the vaccine is a big step in improving immunisation in Uganda.

"All our vaccines depend heavily on cold chains, and it is difficult to reach some communities without vaccine carriers," she said.

'This type of vaccine will help us in hard-to-reach areas where there is low access to refrigerators," she noted.

Whereas most vaccines are kept at temperatures between two and eight degrees centigrade, MenAfriVac can survive temperature of up to 40 degrees centigrade in controlled temperature chain.

Sabiiti, however, noted that the demand for meningitis vaccines in Uganda is not high, since meningitis is a rare occurance.

"Meningitis outbreaks occur occasionally and the quantities required are usually low because the epidemic is often concentrated," she explained.

Meningitis is an infection of the thin lining surrounding the brain and spinal cord. It can cause severe brain damage and can be fatal if untreated.

Uganda was worst hit by meningitis in 2007 when the death toll in the West Nile region and Kotido district went up 110 and 2,923 people were infected.

Most affected districts were Arua and Maracha-Terego, which recorded 1,777 cases and 51 deaths. Followed by Koboko with 431 cases and 20 deaths, Yumbe recorded 300 cases and 14 deaths.

It is estimated that by the end of 2012, more than 100 million people in Africa's meningitis belt will have received the new vaccine.

Health experts argue that introducing MenAfriVac in seven highly endemic African countries could save up to $300 million over a decade and prevent the disease.

The vaccine, which is expected to cost 50 cents (sh1,280) per dose, is made by the Indian generic drug maker Serum Institute.

Clinical trials in Burkina Faso where the vaccine was introduced in 2010, showed its effectiveness in eliminating Meningitis A. 450 million people are at risk of catching the disease across Africa.

Major group A epidemics occur every 7 to14 years and are devastating to children and young adults. The most affected patients die within 24 to 48 hours from the onset of symptoms.

Dr Moses Kamabare, the executive director of the National Medical Stores said the new vaccine would reduce costs of transporting vaccines to rural areas.

"It will reduce transport and fuel costs because it can be transported with other medicines," he said.

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