Cheap Vaccine Has Almost Wiped Meningitis A From Africa

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Another vaccine triumph: Just five years after a cheap jab for meningitis A was developed, the devastating disease is almost gone from the parts of Africa it has ravaged for the past century. While its success should be heralded, this is by no means time for complacency. The World Health Organization (WHO) has warned that this progress threatens to be undone if affected countries don’t routinely immunize children against this disease.

Meningococcal A meningitis, or meningitis A for short, is the inflammation of the fragile lining that envelopes the brain and spinal cord, the meninges, and is caused by bacterial infection. Although it can be due to several different species, Neisseria meningitidis has the potential to result in vast epidemics, events that have been continually plaguing a group of 26 countries in sub-Saharan Africa aptly named the “meningitis belt.”

N. meningitidis is actually thought to be present in the throats of up to 20 percent of the population, but why it sometimes goes rogue and invades the body, causing this often fatal infection, is poorly understood. And since it only infects humans, a preventative vaccine was really the only hope nations had for interrupting transmission and ending the continual threat of epidemics.

While vaccines for the disease have actually been available for more than 30 years, they weren’t good enough to solve the situation in Africa. In steps MenAfriVac, a vaccine developed in response to a particularly severe outbreak back in 1996 that killed 25,000 people in sub-Saharan Africa within the space of a few months. It offered numerous advantages over those already in existence: It’s cheap, costing just 50 cents (33 pence), reduces the amount of N. meningitidis in the throat and thus transmission, offers long-term protection, and doesn’t need to be stored at cold temperatures, a huge advantage for hot African countries.

Since it came into being, almost 240 million individuals have been immunized in 16 countries of the meningitis belt as part of a mass vaccination campaign, the WHO reports. The burden of disease has been dramatically slashed, and in 2013, just four cases were reported in this region. But according to a study published in Clinical Infectious Diseases, epidemics could strike in just 10 years if efforts are not continued.

“We have nearly eliminated meningitis A epidemics from Africa, but the fact is the job is not yet done,” Dr. Jean-Marie Okwo-Bele, director of immunization, vaccines and biologicals at the WHO, said in a statement. “Our dramatic gains against meningitis A through mass vaccination campaigns will be jeopardized unless countries maintain a high level of protection by incorporating the meningitis A vaccine into their routine childhood immunization schedules.”

Affected countries should therefore waste no time in doing so. However, that will not be the only battle: Group A of N. meningitidis is one of six that can cause epidemics. As BBC News points out, in order to eliminate the threat, future vaccines should also target the other groups. 

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