Nairobi — A new vaccine has virtually eliminated meningitis A in 16 African countries, but children will remain vulnerable to the disease which can kill or cause severe brain damage, unless governments routinely immunise them, experts said on Tuesday.
Some 237 million people have been vaccinated since 2010 in a one-off mass campaign across Africa's meningitis belt, which stretches from Senegal in the west to Ethiopia in the east, according to the Meningitis Vaccine Project, a partnership between the World Health Organization and the charity PATH.
"The disease has completely disappeared from the areas where the vaccine was introduced," Marie-Pierre Preziosi, director of the project, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"This is what we call a major success."
Mass campaigns have been completed in 16 countries and will be rolled out in the remaining 10 meningitis belt states by 2017, Preziosi said.
Over 25,000 people died and 250,000 were infected in Africa's worst meningitis outbreak in 1996, when the airborne disease spread across 14 countries.
Meningitis A, which was the most common of five meningitis strains, spreads easily through sneezing and personal contact.
The bacteria cause inflammation of the lining of the brain and spinal cord, resulting in fever, trembling and, in severe cases, seizures and death.
"It was seen by many in the field as the disease that parents feared the most," said Steve Davis, head of PATH.
"It not only killed a lot of kids but it would often leave families and communities and health systems taking care of lots of very neurologically damaged kids."
Brain damaged survivors can have trouble talking or taking care of themselves, he said.
Preziosi said the next step was for governments to include the vaccine, known as MenAfriVac, in their childhood immunisation programmes.
"Should we not introduce the vaccine into routine immunisations, in about 15 years from now, there will be a massive epidemic," said Preziosi, citing research published in the Clinical Infectious Diseases journal.
In February, Ghana will become the first country to introduce MenAfriVac as a routine immunisation, she said.
Vaccination is one of the most effective public health interventions. But the public sector usually needs to provide incentives to the private sector to develop vaccines for diseases that only affect poor populations.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation made a $70 million grant in 2001 to develop and test MenAfriVac. It is being manufactured by a private company, Serum Institute of India.
"This has proven to be quite a model for other vaccines," said Preziosi.
- Reporting by Katy Migiro; Editing by Katie Nguyen