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New meningitis vaccine could halve deaths

[Guinea-Bissau] Girl shows her vaccination certificate.
Vaccination certificates in Guinea Bissau. A new drug being tested in West Africa could cut meningitis deaths by 50 percent (UNICEF)

Every year between December and June winds combined with seasonal respiratory infections trigger outbreaks of deadly meningitis throughout West Africa’s Sahel belt, which stretches from Senegal to Chad.

Just four cases of the fast-spreading illness are enough for health officials to declare an epidemic. But at least 1,300 people have already been infected this year in Burkina Faso, and 36 in northern Côte d’Ivoire, and 150 people have died.

As authorities in Burkina Faso and Côte d’Ivoire rush with emergency vaccinations, scientists in Mali are experimenting with a drug produced in India that they say could halve the disease’s impact once tests are finished in 2009.

"The new vaccine is the only way we can get rid of this particular epidemic, so it is vital," Francis N’krumah, chairman of the meningitis vaccine’s project advisory group, told IRIN.

Scientists say early signs show that the new, relatively inexpensive drug - it costs 50 US cents a dose - breaks many of the limitations of older drugs.

"The old vaccine was efficient but only on children older than two and adults, and it lasted only for two years. The new one can be administered to children under two and can yield more than 10 years immunity," said Kader Konde, focal point at the World Health Organisation (WHO) for the vaccine development project, and head of the Ouagadougou-based multi-disease surveillance centre.

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 effective at stopping massive outbreaks because it directly attacks the germ in the throat, preventing the main form of transmission, which is coughing.

“The older polysaccharide vaccine does not reduce the quantity of germ in the respiratory apparatus," Konde said.

Officials said the new vaccine would be used preventatively, instead of being administered to stop outbreaks already in progress from spreading, which is the current practice.

The new vaccine only targets one strain of meningitis, type A, which is responsible for 51 percent of infections in West Africa. Therefore, if proven effective it could halve deaths of meningitis in the region.

The Sahel region, a semi-arid belt of mostly landlocked countries, includes many of the poorest places in the world such as Niger, Chad, Mali and Burkina Faso.

Child mortality is high in the Sahel - often more than one in every five children dies before its fifth birthday - and 40 is considered old age.

Aid agencies and nongovernmental organisations have complained that donors focus too much on food aid emergency feeding programs, and ignore other health and livelihood problems such as malaria, pneumonia, water security and education of women, which also contribute to mortality.

Officials involved in the meningitis vaccine project said they will start raising funds from donors and the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation (GAVI) to cover the administration and medical costs of mass vaccination campaigns which are planned for Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, Chad and northern Nigeria, once the tests are finished.

The project 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. More tests will be rolled out this year in Ethiopia, Ghana and Senegal.


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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