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Campaign To Inoculate Millions Across Africa Against Meningitis Kicks Off In Burkina Faso

On Monday, a campaign started in Burkina Faso to “inoculate tens of millions of West Africans with a new vaccine in what scientists hope will be the beginning of the end of ravaging meningitis epidemics” across the continent, the New York Times reports. Burkina Faso marks the first country in a drive aimed at “bringing the disease under control and saving an estimated 150,000 lives by 2015 in a belt of 25 nations that girds the continent,” according to the newspaper  (Dugger, 12/4).

The vaccination program “will take aim at this scourge first by inoculating 12.5 million people aged one to 29 in Burkina Faso – a country that that lies near the center of the meningitis belt and has one of the highest infection rates on the continent,” TIME reports. “By the end of the year, the World Health Organization (WHO) plans to have reached 20 million people by expanding into Mali and Niger. By 2015, it hopes to have the entire meningitis belt covered,” TIME reports (Perry, 12/3).

Although public health officials say “[h]undreds of millions of dollars are still needed” to achieve vaccination targets, “the meningitis vaccine itself is a milestone in developing inexpensive vaccines against neglected diseases that afflict poor countries, experts say,” the New York Times writes. The vaccine “relies on a technology that was devised by researchers at the Food and Drug Administration and donated by the United States government at the cost of only token royalties. It is being manufactured by the Serum Institute of India, a major vaccine producer, and it was developed independently of the major American and European pharmaceutical companies,” according to the article (12/4).

TIME continues: “Immunizing half a billion people in under five years would be a public health coup by any measure, but the way the new vaccine – called MenAfriVac – came to be makes the achievement all the more significant.” TIME explores the costs associated with vaccine development and describes how the Meningitis Vaccine Project (MVP) “reinvented the vaccine-development wheel in a number of ways … the organization spent just $50 million to develop MenAfriVac; for another, it moved the product from lab bench to consumer in just six years. … The developers achieved all that in part by building the vaccine out of the pharmaceutical equivalent of off-the-shelf parts.” The article notes the $90 million in grants the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation contributed to the program (Perry, 12/3).

“More than a million cases of meningitis have been reported in Africa over the past two decades, and the vaccine works against the group A meningitis strain that causes more than 8 out of 10 cases on the continent. Moreover, it costs less than 50 cents a dose. In the United States, Novartis and Sanofi Pasteur market a single dose of meningitis vaccines against multiple strains of the disease for $80 to $100,” the New York Times writes (12/4).

“The hope is that this new, cut-price model of drug development can be adapted to other diseases of the developing world too, such as pneumonia and rotavirus, both of which are already in the Gates Foundation’s sights as the next targets of cheap and streamlined vaccines,” TIME writes. The article includes comments by Chris Elias, president and CEO of PATH, Marc LaForce, director of the MVP, and Tachi Yamada, president of the Gates Foundation’s Global Health Program (12/3).

Despite the promise of the meningitis vaccination campaign, “public health experts [have] cautioned that the promise of the meningitis vaccine should not be oversold. It will not eradicate the disease because it is effective only against the group A strain most common in Africa,” the New York Times writes. Funding to support the campaign may also be in jeopardy: “So far, donors and African countries have raised $95 million of the estimated $570 million cost of eliminating meningitis epidemics across Africa, WHO officials say. But the global financial crisis has pinched foreign aid spending, leaving the remainder in doubt.”

The article describes bacterial meningitis as being “highly contagious,” details the symptoms associated with infection and the previous methods used to protect the public from outbreaks. Bill Gates, co-founder of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Doug Holtzman, deputy director of infectious diseases at the Gates Foundation, LaForce, of the MVP group, the Gates Foundation’s Richard Adegbola and several scientists who were not involved in the project are also quoted in the article (12/4).

Additional information on the MenAfriVac launch is available from the WHO (December 2010).