Every year, meningitis sweeps across as many as 20 countries in sub-Saharan Africa, killing thousands of people and causing permanent disabilities in many others. Last year, a new strain of the disease was discovered for which there was no vaccine. Today, a vaccine does exist, but the money to produce it does not.
Africa's meningitis belt stretches from Senegal to Ethiopia. The World Health Organization says between December and June, all the countries within the belt are subjected to dry, dusty winds and cold nights. The result is an increase in upper respiratory tract infections and an increase in the risk of meningitis.
Kissing, sneezing and coughing can spread the disease, which causes an infection of the thin lining of the brain and the spinal cord.
Dr. Anarfi Asamoa-Baah, WHO assistant director-general for communicable diseases, says meningitis can take a terrible toll.
"Once people become sick, they require medicines and costly hospitalization," he said. "Even with prompt treatment, this disease kills ten percent of those it infects. In many of the countries we are talking about, treatment is neither prompt nor adequate."
"And therefore it kills up to 15 percent of the people it affects," continued Dr. Asamoa-Baah. "Many of the survivors are left with permanent brain damage, mental retardation, deafness."
Dr. Asamoa-Baah says if the proper steps are taken, meningitis won't claim as many victims.
"If we act today, we may be able to change the course of this year's meningitis epidemic," he said. "This is essentially an issue of preventing widespread suffering."
Last year, a new strain of the disease, called W135, was discovered in Burkina Faso, where it was blamed for 1,500 deaths. Following requests from health agencies, the pharmaceutical firm GlaxoSmithKline developed a vaccine in record time. The company is making it available for the coming epidemic season at a cost of about one dollar per dose. Similar vaccines have cost anywhere from $4-$50 per dose. But in order to produce it for that low price, a minimum order of six million doses is needed. The total cost of the vaccine, syringes and other material is $9.7 million.
The humanitarian group, Doctors Without Borders, also known as MSF for Medecins Sans Frontieres, is the first to contribute money. Dr. Bernard Pecoul is director of the group's Campaign for Access to Essential Medicines.
"MSF has decided to buy one million doses of the new vaccine to make sure we can respond to an epidemic that might start early next year," he said. "But it's not enough and today we are alone. We often hear that governments say pharmaceutical companies need to do their share in making means available to developing countries to cope with public health needs. Well, today, where are the governments?"
Doctors Without Borders and the WHO say too often donors react too late, once an epidemic has taken hold. In this case, they say, the $9.7 million is needed by the end of September. That's because in order for six million doses to be produced, production must begin right away.