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WHO Develops Long-Lasting, Low-Cost Meningitis Vaccine

With more than three months remaining in the peak meningitis season, outbreaks in Burkina Faso and Central African Republic have already taken hundreds of lives. But the World Health Organization says a new, low-cost, long-lasting vaccine, possibly available as soon as next year, could help prevent future outbreaks. Naomi Schwarz has more from VOA's West Africa bureau in Dakar.

Thousands of cases of meningitis have been reported in countries across the so-called meningitis belt since the beginning of 2008.

The belt is a band of countries in Africa stretching from Senegal to Ethiopia. More than two-thirds of the world's cases of the often-deadly disease occur here.

This year, in Burkina Faso alone, more than 350 people have died from the disease, which attacks the lining around the brain and spinal cord. Even with treatment, as many as 10 percent of meningitis patients die.

Most meningitis cases occur in the region's driest months, between January and June.

The WHO, along with governments in the region and other international health organizations, has vaccinated hundreds of thousands of people in the hardest hit areas.

But World Health Organization meningitis expert, Alexandro Costa, says the current vaccines have serious limitations in fighting meningitis.

"The immunity is just for two years. So for that reason, the vaccine is just for reactive vaccinations, to control the outbreak, but it is not to immunize people for a long time," said Costa.

The current vaccines also do not protect very young children.

The WHO has developed a new vaccine they hope they can use to prevent outbreaks before they start.

"The new conjugate vaccine will give immunity for at least ten years, with the data that we have so far. It means that we can immunize people and also people [who are] not receiving the vaccine, will receive a benefit from the others, because we can interrupt the transmission of the meningococcal bacteria," added Costa.

The vaccine will target one particular strain of meningitis, called serotype A. Costa says this strain is responsible for nearly all the meningitis cases in Africa.

He says WHO hopes to use the new vaccine, which will only cost about 40 cents each, to vaccinate entire populations.

"We expect to eliminate the meningitis serotype A with the new vaccine," continued Costa.

The company that developed the new vaccine along with the WHO aim to begin distributing the vaccine by early next year.