Achieving sustainable gains against meningitis
In 1996 and 1997, the largest meningitis epidemic in African history swept across the sub-Saharan region—25,000 people died. Soon after, African ministers of health approached the World Health Organization (WHO) for help with a solution. In response, WHO and PATH formed the Meningitis Vaccine Project (MVP) to develop a vaccine that would protect people from group A meningococcal meningitis—the most destructive form of the disease in the region.
Less than a decade of work among many partners led to the development, licensing, and distribution of a new conjugate vaccine called MenAfriVac™. The first mass vaccination campaigns with MenAfriVac™ began in December 2010 in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger, reaching nearly 20 million people and leading to a dramatic drop in the number of meningitis cases. As the epidemic season came to a close in June, not a single case of meningitis A had been reported in the individuals who had been vaccinated with MenAfriVac™. In late 2011, the vaccine reached Cameroon, Chad, and Nigeria.
A generational change
In the next few years, PATH and WHO plan to bring the MenAfriVac™ vaccine to some 300 million children and adults, aged 1 through 29, in another 22 countries of sub-Saharan Africa. The vaccine will quickly reduce the transmission of group A meningococcal bacteria and create a drastic drop in illness and death rates from meningitis A. Widespread coverage of the vaccine will create “herd immunity” that will protect even those who have not been vaccinated against the disease. Immunity with just one dose of the vaccine is expected to last at least ten years.
Meanwhile, PATH and WHO are continuing to build evidence for the vaccine’s safe use among infants. In 2013, the MVP team expects to receive WHO prequalification of the vaccine for infants—which brings international regulatory approval—clearing the way for the vaccine’s use among the youngest people susceptible to the disease.
The countdown to the elimination of group A meningitis epidemics has started in Africa. Within the next few years, as vaccination teams are deployed across the continent, millions of people will finally be able to live without the fear of meningitis epidemics.