Meningitis is a major health threat across the Sahel region of Africa, particularly the A strain of the infection. Many people carry the bacteria harmlessly in their throats for much of the year. But when the dusty Harmattan wind sweeps down from the Sahara Desert, health experts believe the irritation, dryness and dustiness in people’s throats reduces their resistance and cases of the disease peak.
In particularly bad years, outbreaks of meningitis are thought to have killed around 25,000 people. Existing vaccines have proved ineffective against outbreaks of meningitis A, particularly in young children. Even when these vaccines were administered, they didn’t provide long-lasting protection and when shipped into a region to address a sudden surge in cases, often arrived too late to be useful.
Now a new meningitis vaccine is bringing hope of a massive reduction in cases of the disease in Africa. According to a study published in the Lancet and reported by the news agency IRIN, the new vaccine has recently been rolled out in Chad and resulted in a 94% drop in the incidence of all types of the disease.
Known as MenAfriVac, the vaccine has been developed specifically for the Sahelian region of Africa. As well as tackling the illness, it also drives the bugs which cause meningitis out of the throat, so that people are no longer carriers. This dramatically reduces transmission of the disease.
Epidemics could be consigned to history
Speaking to IRIN, a programme manager from the study into the effectiveness of the new vaccine explained that health experts had already been optimistic about it, since first results from Burkina Faso had been very promising. However, in the year it was used, cases in Burkina Faso weren’t pervasive, so it was hard to judge its overall efficacy.
In Chad, the Ministry of Health decided to roll out the vaccine in phases. This meant one part of the country had received it, while another had not. When researchers compared the two areas, the results were strikingly different. In places where the new vaccine had been used, the incidence of all types of meningitis was only 2.5 for every 100,000 people and no cases of meningitis type A were found. In unvaccinated areas, the incidence was 43.6 per 100,000. Based on these exciting results, the study’s programme manager concluded that with mass vaccinations, “meningitis epidemics in the Sahel [could be] a thing of the past”.