Each year, meningitis kills thousands of children across the Sahel belt of Africa, a vast swathe of semi-arid land which spans across the continent from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea. Outbreaks of the Meningitis A strain sweep through the continent from Senegal in the west to Somalia in the east, giving the belt of land a more sinister name – the “meningitis belt”. Even with antibiotics, at least 10 per cent of those infected die of meningitis A and another 10-20 per cent are left with permanent disabilities, such as mental retardation, deafness and epilepsy.
Around 450 million people are at risk across the Sahel belt. In an average year, around 50,000 children and young adults are infected and around 5,000 die. In the worst epidemic of 1997, 250,000 were infected and over 25,000 died. Dr Jean-Marie Okwo-Bele, a spokesperson for the WHO said “it is a dreadful disease” and travelling through villages in the countries affected, it is possible to “feel the fear in the populations”. Streets empty when the disease strikes “because people are so afraid to be in contact with each other."
Large pharmaceutical companies were approached to come up with a cheaper vaccine, but were not able to produce one at an affordable price. Recently however, a collaboration between the World Health Organisation and the Program for Appropriate Technology in Health (PATH), a not-for-profit organisation based in the USA, has managed to develop a new vaccine, called MenAfriVac. The 50 million dollars MenAfriVac cost to develop was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. This new vaccine can be manufactured in quantities for a cost of just 50 cents (30 pence) per dose, compared to the significantly higher cost of existing pneumococcal vaccines at 3.50 dollars.
In Burkina Faso, the yearly epidemic of meningitis usually strikes from the middle of January to mid-April. MenAfriVac is being launched here in early December and the plan is to vaccinate all those between 1 and 29 years of age. The 30 million dollars put forward by the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation (GAVI) to cover the roll-out of the vaccine, will also include Mali and Niger.
Trials have shown that MenAfriVac is more than 98 per cent effective against meningitis A and it should last 10-15 years among people who’ve received it. No wonder then that there is great excitement among health professionals in Burkina Faso and across Africa. Jean-Marie Okwo-Bele sums up the feelings of many by calling MenAfriVac “a huge accomplishment in public health”. Not only will it affect the lives of 450 million people, MenAfriVac shows it is possible sophisticated vaccines can be developed at an affordable price to protect impoverished populations across the world.