Scientists have found that 90 per cent of individuals vaccinated with a meningitis A vaccine costing less than 50 cents a dose had protective antibodies in their system 5 years later, bringing Africa close to elimination of the “highly feared’ disease on the continent, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced today.
In the announcement, WHO said “for a century, epidemics of meningococcal A meningitis, a bacterial infection of the lining of the brain and spinal cord, have swept across 26 countries in sub-Saharan Africa killing and disabling young people every year.”
“The disease is highly feared on the continent; it can kill or cause severe brain damage within hours,” it said. “But just 5 years after an affordable meningitis A vaccine was introduced, its use has led to the control and near elimination of deadly meningitis A disease in the African ‘meningitis belt’” stretching across the continent from Senegal to Ethiopia.
WHO said in 2013, only 4 laboratory-confirmed cases of meningitis A were reported by the 26 countries in the belt.
“We have nearly eliminated meningitis A epidemics from Africa, but the fact is the job is not yet done,” said Dr Jean-Marie Okwo-Bele, WHO’s Director of Immunization, Vaccines and Biologicals. “Our dramatic gains against meningitis A through mass vaccination campaigns will be jeopardized unless countries maintain a high level of protection by incorporating the meningitis A vaccine into their routine childhood immunization schedules.”
According to the UN health agency, the vaccine, MenAfriVac, was developed in response to a plea for help from ministers of health in sub-Saharan Africa after an outbreak of meningitis A in 1996 infected over 250,000 people and killed over 25,000 in just a few months.
The vaccine costs less than $0.50 a dose and wherever it has been rolled out, meningitis A has disappeared, WHO said.
The findings are reported in a special collection of 29 articles in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases – with guest editors from the former Meningitis Vaccine Project, a partnership between WHO and the international health non-profit organization, PATH.
As of today, WHO said, the vaccination campaigns reached more than 237 million people aged 1 through 29 years in 16 countries (Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Côte d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sudan, and Togo). Of the 26 countries in the African meningitis belt, 10 still need to fully roll out vaccination.
It also said an added benefit is that the vaccine also boosts protective immune responses to tetanus, a painful bacterial disease that can cause involuntary muscle tightening and spasms sometimes strong enough to fracture bones.