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Africa Faces New Strain Of Meningitis - 2002-09-23

Experts on meningitis are meeting this week in Burkina Faso to discuss ways of fighting the disease, including a new strain for which Africa does not yet have a vaccine.

Meningitis is a potentially fatal bacterial infection of the brain membrane. According to the humanitarian group Doctors Without Borders, the disease “kills twenty-five thousand people every year in the seasonal epidemics” that strike Africa’s so-called “meningitis belt.” It’s an area that stretches from Senegal to Ethiopia.

But the group says “for the first time in the recorded history” of the disease, there’s a new strain of meningitis. It’s called W-135 and emerged early this year in Burkina Faso.

Daniel Berman is in charge of the “Access to Medicine” campaign for Doctors Without Borders. He says the normal strategy to prevent meningitis from spreading is to vaccinate large numbers of people.

He says, "Now the problem this year and the coming years is that there’s a new strain called W-135. And for Africa today there’s virtually no vaccine available for this strain."

That’s not to say a vaccine for the W-135 strain of meningitis does not exist. Mr. Berman says it’s available in many developed nations.

"There’s a vaccine that’s available today that works for all the strains," he says. "But the company that makes it, GlaxoSmithKlein, only makes it for the European and North American markets. The technology and the vaccine, itself, exist. The only problem is that it’s too expensive for Africa and there’s no supply because there was no money in the bank to pay for it."

The Doctors Without Borders official says negotiations could be held on lowering the cost of the vaccine the way it was done to reduce to price of HIV/AIDS medications. The group says Glaxo-Smith-Klein is currently making some of the vaccine available for four dollars a dose, instead of the average fifty dollar a dose price. Nevertheless, Mr. Berman says that’s still too high.

He says, "The first thing that needs to happen is there needs to be the political will to put the money on the table to pay for the vaccine. But certainly your example of AIDS is very relevant because with AIDS drugs we know that they can be produced, even with a profit, for ninety-five percent less by generic companies. This is not a case of brands versus generic. But what we’re asking is that the company, for example AVENTIS or Glaxo-Smith-Klein, lower the price for one dollar per patient. We know it’s possible because working with technical experts we know that the actual vaccine can be produced for about fifty cents per person. So we think that a dollar per person is reliable."

Doctors Without Borders says if the World Health Organization and donor countries work together now to provide the needed funds, enough vaccine for the new strain of meningitis will be available for Africa next year.