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Meningitis Vaccine Stockpiled to Prevent Disease in Africa

GAVI, the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization, is fast tracking a $55 million contribution to establish a stockpile of vaccines to save lives and contain the spread of meningitis across Africa. The Geneva-based GAVI Alliance is a public-private partnership that includes the World Health Organization, UNICEF and private philanthropies, such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Some 400 million people in Africa are potentially at risk of getting meningitis. They live in the so-called Meningitis Belt, which stretches from Senegal in the west to Ethiopia in the east. Meningitis flourishes during the dry season, which runs between January and June.

During the first 11 weeks of this year, the World Health Organization reports more than ,1500 deaths and nearly 25,000 cases of meningitis. More than 85% of them have occurred in Northern Nigeria and Niger.

GAVI Alliance Spokesman, Dan Thomas, tells VOA meningococcal vaccines cannot help those people who already are infected with the disease. But, he says it is a crucial weapon in preventing cases and epidemics.

He says the $55 million contribution will fund 45 million doses of vaccines through 2013 to support emergency outbreaks in the most vulnerable countries. "This is a stockpile of polysaccharide vaccine. This is the only vaccine, which is available at the moment and it means that when countries need it, there will always be vaccines available to be immediately deployed to the communities and the people that need the vaccines most…45…I am sure that Niger and Nigeria will be the first in line to apply for the vaccines and to receive the vaccines in the communities where they are needed," he said.

Meningitis is a bacterial infection of the fluid surrounding the brain and spinal cord. The disease develops quickly and is highly contagious. It kills about one in 10 people who get it.

Between five and 10% of patients die within 24 to 48 hours after the first symptoms appear. Up to one quarter of survivors suffer permanent damage, most commonly hearing loss, mental retardation or epilepsy.

Thomas says a new conjugative vaccine, which can be used for routine immunizations against meningitis will be available at the end of the year. "That is not possible with the polysaccharide vaccine because it only protects for two to three years and it is not very effective in children under the age of two because they lack the ability to develop antibodies. But, the new vaccine that is coming at the end of this year, the conjugative vaccine can protect long-term for meningitis and that is something we will be able to build in to routine immunizations for all children in the meningitis belt. And, that will protect them for life against meningitis," he said.

Thomas says clinical trials of the new vaccine are going on now. He says as soon as the World Health Organization gives it the green light, then GAVI will be able to make it available to countries that need and want it.