Print options

December 06, 2010

New, Affordable Meningitis Vaccine Debuts in Africa

by Anne Look

Health officials say a new, affordable vaccine launched this week in Burkina Faso could eliminate recurring meningitis-A epidemics that have plagued the continent for the past century.

Health workers say Meningococcal-A epidemics that hit sub-Saharan Africa every seven to 14 years could soon be a thing of the past, thanks to a new, affordable vaccine launched this week in Burkina Faso.

A baby cries in his mother's arms as he is vaccinated. His mother says she is afraid of meningitis because it kills and that is why she brought her baby here.

Burkina Faso is part of what health workers call Africa's "meningitis belt," a band of 25 countries stretching from Senegal to Ethiopia. Health workers plan to vaccinate 12 million Burkinabe against the disease by the end of the year.

The new vaccine, called MenAfriVac, is the first vaccine developed especially for Africa. It costs less than 50 cents a dose and provides 10 years of immunity against a form of meningitis called meningococcal-A, which infects the lining around the brain and spinal cord and can kill or disable its victims. The strain accounts for more than 80 percent of meningitis outbreaks in sub-Saharan Africa.

The vaccine was developed by a partnership between the World Health Organization and international nonprofit, PATH, with the support of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and collaboration from public health officials in affected countries.

Meningitis Vaccine Project leader Michael LaForce said its launch this week marks "the beginning of the end" for meningitis in Burkina Faso, and sub-Saharan Africa.

"Today is a phenomenal day," LaForce said. "Today represents the culmination of ten years worth of work to develop the vaccine. The president of Burkina Faso has unleashed a major vaccination campaign here, and we fully expect to see impact from this vaccine in the next epidemic season which will be next spring."

Showing his support, Burkinabe President Blaise Compaore and his wife were there Monday when the first vaccinations were administered to children in the capital, Ouagadougou.

Mr. Compaore says meningitis kills men, women and children throughout the region. He says thanks to international partnerships and support, we now have a vaccine that was specifically made to fight this epidemic while also being accessible to the population. He says concern now is how to mobilize more than 300 million people across the region to get vaccinated and put an end to recurring epidemics.

A meningitis outbreak last year killed 5,000 people in sub-Saharan Africa, and the World Health Organization says more 450 million people there are currently at risk of the disease.

WHO Director-General Margaret Chan applauded the vaccine as a one-time investment that could save tens of thousands of lives by 2015.

"Twenty-five countries are affected, so Burkina Faso is taking the leadership to launch this campaign which is extremely important," said Chan. "This is the first step. Two other countries, Mali and Niger, will follow, and we hope to be able to get more resources to support the other 22 countries so that their people can benefit from this very effective and affordable vaccine."

The World Health Organization says an additional $475 million is needed to extend vaccination to all 25 affected countries by 2015.