A new vaccine promises to combat the scourge of meningitis in Africa. It has passed developmental hurdles and is about to be manufactured and field tested.

Meningitis vaccines exist, but they do not provide long lasting protection and are not very effective in children. A new vaccine to overcome those problems was successfully introduced into Britain in 1999. Now, scientists are creating versions for the meningitis strain that afflicts a major section of Africa.

"Our group aims to develop a group of vaccines to generate a public health good across sub-Saharan African countries," said physician Marc LaForce, who directs the program that is developing the new vaccine - the Meningitis Vaccine Project. It is a partnership between the World Health Organization and a non-profit group in Seattle, Washington, called the Program for Appropriate Technology in Health, funded with a $70 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

"We have an opportunity to actually develop and produce at an affordable price a vaccine against a disease that has been a terror to sub-Saharan Africa for well over 50 years," Dr. LaForce said.

Bacterial meningitis is common in a wide belt ranging from Senegal and Gambia in west Africa to Ethiopia in the east. At risk are more than 250 million people. The most recent epidemic in 1996 killed 20,000. Last year was not an epidemic year, but the scourge still killed more than 5,000.

World Health Organization spokesman Philippe Stroot points out that major outbreaks are becoming more frequent.

"Those countries in sub-Saharan Africa have experienced large outbreaks every eight to 12 years in the past," he said. "Now we have noticed that intervals have become shorter and more irregular since the beginning of the 1980s. We note this trend for a change in the epidemic cycle."

Antibiotics help against meningitis, but at least 10 percent of patients die. As many and even more are left with permanent problems such as mental retardation, deafness, and epilepsy.

That raises the importance of vaccines to prevent the ailment. A vaccine works by introducing bits of disease into the body to train immune system cells how to attack when the germ invades on its own. But available meningitis vaccines usually do not work in infants and children, who are the bulk of meningitis patients, because parts of their immune system are too immature to react.

To get around this, project scientists have added a tetanus protein to the new vaccine that is recognized by better-developed segments of young children's immune system.

Marc LaForce of the Meningitis Vaccine Project says the technology is a different version than the kind commercial drug companies pursued years ago, but abandoned for lack of profit.

"There were eight vaccines that were manufactured in the early 1990s and were actually field tested in Africa, but were not felt to be commercially viable," he said. "Nonetheless, these vaccines yielded important serologic [immunity] and safety information that suggests to us that the product that we are currently developing will be fully effective and safe."

The experimental meningitis vaccine will soon be manufactured by the Serum Institute in India. Dr. LaForce says large African tests could start next year, with the vaccine possibly ready for general use in four or five years.

"The ultimate goal of the project is to immunize 250 million across sub-Saharan Africa," he said.