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Cheap jab wipes out new cases of meningitis A

A low-cost new vaccine has slashed the number of new cases of Meningitis A in three west African countries to almost zero.

The result, which happened within the space of just six months, is a massive leap forward for a part of the world where meningitis A makes up 90 per cent of all meningitis cases and epidemics often kill tens of thousands of people.

Meningitis is one of the most dreaded infectious diseases in the world. Even after treatment with antibiotics, at least 10 per cent of patients die and another 10 to 20 per cent are left with permanent problems, including, deafness or epilepsy.

The A strain has caused major epidemics along Africa's meningitis belt, which stretches from Ethiopia in the East to Senegal in the West. In 2009, between 6000 and 8000 people died and 55,000 contracted the disease in Nigeria alone.

"It's all looking very promising," said the World Health Organisation’s Marie-Pierre Preziosi who leads a long-term project to roll out the new vaccine, named MenAfriVac, to all Africa’s Meningitis belt countries.

No one who has had the new vaccine has been infected with the disease, and the few cases that have appeared in places where people have been treated were among people visiting from other areas, who had not had the jab.

The biggest roll out of the new vaccine has been in Burkina Faso, in west Africa where 20 million people had the jab last year. According to the World Health Organisation, there have been no cases of meningitis A in people who have had the jab, compared with the usual 100 to 200 cases expected in six months, even when there is no epidemic.

There has been a similar result in neighbouring Mali and Niger, which vaccinated people in high risk zones six months ago.

MenAfriVac is cheaper and more powerful than existing meningitis A vaccines. "It makes the immune response much more vigorous," Marc LaForce, from the global Meningitis Vaccine Project, which developed MenAfriVac, told New Scientist.

The body makes antibodies to guard against the disease long after having the jab, which makes exerts hopeful that a single jab may be enough to give lifelong protection.

But it will be hard work getting the vaccine out to all countries at risk. Vaccinations will start in Cameroon, Chad and Nigeria later this year.

Hayley attribution