A new meningitis vaccine which could save the lives of millions of children is today (Monday) being launched in Burkina Faso.
The jab will later be rolled out in Niger and Mali, and then the rest of sub-Saharan Africa, where epidemics of the disease kill thousands of people every year.
Developed with funds from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the vaccine, which costs just 35p, is the first to be targeted at Africa and has been hailed as a major breakthrough.
Every year, meningitis A affects 450 million children and kills 5,000. Mothers in sub-Saharan Africa say the only disease they fear more is malaria.
MenAfriVac will today be used for the first time with the immunisation of 12.5 million people in Burkina Faso. Experts hope the drug, which cost about £31million to develop, will eventually wipe out the disease.
"This is a huge accomplishment,” said World Health Organisation director of vaccines, Dr Jean-Marie Okwo-Bele. “The impact will be enormous in terms of lives saved.
"It's a terrifying disease. You can feel the fear in villages when it strikes. It affects children who can be dead in two days."
Health officials want to roll out the scheme across Africa but are worried about the estimated £350million cost.
But without cash, everything could still come to a "screeching halt," said Dr Marc LaForce, director of the Meningitis Vaccine Project.
The jab aims to vaccinate everyone aged between one and 29 before the annual epidemic hits the meningitis belt from mid-January to mid-April. The epidemic sweeps across 25 countries from Senegal in the west to Somalia in the east. The worst happened in 1997, affecting 250,000 and killing 25,000. Children and young adults are most at risk.
This new vaccine is a major development because it has been formulated without the help of the giant pharmaceutical companies and is aimed at the needs – and budgets – of an African population. It will cost just about 35p a dose.
The introduction of an affordable vaccine against meningitis A in Africa "is truly a huge accomplishment in public health,” said the World Health Organisation’s Dr Jean-Marie Okwo-Bele. “This will affect the lives of 450 million people who are at risk of this disease in the meningitis belt."
In an average year, there are 50,000 cases of meningitis, which can cause deafness and mental retardation, and 5,000 deaths. "It is a dreadful disease," said Dr Okwo-Bele, who saw it in his own country, the Democratic Republic of Congo. "Travelling in the villages that were affected, you could feel the fear in the populations. You could see empty streets because people are so afraid to be in contact with each other."