We’re marking World Immunization Week 2016, by revisiting the story of this meningitis vaccine that was tailor-made for Africa.
Epidemics of meningococcal A meningitis, which is a bacterial infection of the thin lining surrounding the brain and spinal cord, have swept across 26 countries in sub-Saharan Africa for a century, killing and disabling young people every year. The disease is highly feared on the continent; it can kill or cause severe brain damage in a child within hours. Epidemics usually start at the beginning of the calendar year when dry sands from the Sahara Desert begin blowing southward.
Five years after the introduction of an affordable conjugate meningitis A vaccine (MenAfriVac) in sub-Saharan Africa, mass immunization campaigns have led to the control and near elimination of deadly meningitis A disease in the African “meningitis belt.” In 2013, only four laboratory-confirmed cases of meningitis A were reported by the 26 countries.
This is being called a “stunning success” by global health leaders. But the WHO and other scientists warn that unless countries within the meningitis belt incorporate the meningitis A vaccine in routine immunization schedules for infants, there is a risk that the disease could rebound in 15 years’ time.
These and other findings about the MenAfriVac vaccine were published late last year in a collection of articles supplementing the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases, guest edited by experts from Public Health England and the former Meningitis Vaccine Project—a partnership between WHO and PATH.
MenAfriVac and the Meningitis Vaccine Project were also celebrated this February at a Closure Conference in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia—a curtain-raiser to the Ministerial Conference on Immunization in Africa (MCIA)—where global vaccine experts and officials from all 26 African “meningitis belt” countries convened to celebrate one of Africa’s biggest public health achievements. There, they announced that eight countries have applied for funding to start integrating this lifesaving vaccine into their national childhood immunization programs.