Low cost meningitis vaccine developed

A new low-cost and highly effective meningitis vaccine will be introduced in 2009 as trials in West Africa proved successful, the head of the project said in the Burkina Faso capital Ouagadougou.

“The vaccine protects against the most virulent strain [of meningitis] in Africa that causes 85 percent of all damages and this vaccine will address much of the difficulty [of treatment],” said Professor Marc Laforce, head of the Meningitis Vaccine Project (MVP).

According to Laforce, clinical trials conducted in Senegal, The Gambia and Mali showed positive results. “The vaccine is very immunogenic”, he said.

The meningitis bacteria is transmitted through respiratory secretions, such as sneezing or coughing, which is why it is more prevalent in the first six months of the year when there are strong winds and people’s immune systems are weakened by the colder climate.

The new vaccine is believed to be effective at stopping massive outbreaks because it directly attacks the germ in the throat, preventing the main form of transmission, which is coughing, although that is going to be tested in further trials in Burkina Faso next year.

Kader Kondé, the MVP focal point in the World Health Organization’s (WHO) office in the Burkina Faso capital Ouagadougou told IRIN that the project has inked a deal with the Serum Institute of India (SII) to produce 25 million doses of vaccine for African countries over a period of ten years.

The new vaccine dose is going to cost US$0.40 compared to the $10 to $20 dollars vaccines usually cost. “The advantage of the new vaccine is that it is going to be affordable”, Kondé said.

Using the new lower cost vaccine it will cost US$500 million to immunise 500 million people aged 0-29 in sub-Saharan Africa, according to the WHO. The first countries to benefit will be Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger where meningitis hits hard annually in the dry season from December until May.

Other advantages of the new drug are it provides immunity for ten years instead of the current two, it can be administered to children under two years-old, and it can be used preventively not just as a treatment.

The project that developed the drug is a joint partnership between WHO and the Program for Appropriate Technologies in Health (PATH). The project was launched in 2001 and has since received a US $70 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The first tests took place in 2004 in India. Others took place in 2006 in Mali and The Gambia, and in 2007 in Ethiopia, Ghana and Senegal.

Meningitis, which attacks the brain and spinal column and is potentially fatal, is endemic in much of the arid Sahel region of Africa with outbreaks most common during the dry season, from January to March. This is when dry sand-laden winds that settle hazily in the sky act as carriers of the meningitis bacteria which can attach to dust particles.

The new vaccine treats the type A strain of meningitis which is most prevalent in Africa. It does not protect against the W135 strain of meningitis, which has been responsible for some of the largest and most fatal outbreaks in recent years. In 2002, an outbreak of the W135 strain of meningitis afflicted 13,000 people and killed 1,500 in Burkina Faso, according to WHO.

Also see:

WEST AFRICA: New meningitis vaccine could halve deaths
WEST AFRICA: Meningitis breakthrough could be on horizon

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This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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