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WHO Urgently Requests Meningitis Vaccine Funding for Africa - 2003-09-27

The World Health Organization is appealing for funds to buy millions of doses of a meningitis vaccine to protect people at risk in Africa. WHO says it must act within weeks, before the meningitis season begins this winter.

The World Health Organization said it is running out of time to produce the vaccines needed to protect people against a virulent new form of meningitis.

Two years ago, Burkina Faso was stricken with a new, deadlier strain of meningitis, known as W-135. It was resistant to existing vaccines, and killed nearly 3,000 people. Pharmaceutical companies answered an appeal by health agencies and produced a vaccine against the W-135 strain in record time.

WHO Assistant Director-General for Communicable Diseases Anarfi Asamoa-Baa said the pharmaceutical firm, GlaxoSmithKline, has agreed to sell the vaccine for the symbolic price of just over a dollar a dose. He said production must begin in the next two weeks for the vaccine to be made up in time.

"This season could very well produce large epidemics, and we could soon be reading tragic new stories. If we act today, we may be able to change the course of this year's meningitis epidemic. This is essential in preventing widespread suffering," he said.

Africa's meningitis belt stretches from Ethiopia to Senegal. The disease strikes every year, putting 250 million people at risk. In the last 10 years, WHO repoted 700,000 people have been stricken with the disease and tens-of-thousands have died. Dr. Asamoa-Baa said these are not just numbers to him.

"In my own home country of Ghana, I have seen at first hand the devastation that the disease can cause. The affect on families, on health systems, on the country's psychic. Once people become sick, they require medicines and costly hospitalization. Even with prompt treatment, this disease kills 10 percent of those it affects.

Dr. Asamoa-Baa said vaccines are the most cost-effective way to combat meningitis.