Beyond Borders

New Meningitis A vaccine
shows promise for Africa


Every year between December and June, the people who live in Africa’s so-called Meningitis belt wait in fear of an epidemic to strike. Meningitis epidemics affect tens of thousands annually in this region that stretches from Senegal in the west to Ethiopia in the east.

MSF has been working for 15 years in Africa to treat those who contract the disease and curb the spread of epidemics through reactive vaccination campaigns. However, vaccination has until now been used solely as a reactive tool to reduce the number of cases due to an epidemic once it has already broken out. The reason is that the vaccines available until recently have offered only short-term protection and confer only partial immunity for three years. They do not reduce transmission rates significantly so vaccinating the whole population against the disease each epidemic season does not have major public health benefits. These vaccines are also not effective in children under two years of age.

In what many are describing as a “revolutionary development”, a new vaccine against Meningitis A has been developed.

With the support of MSF, the promising new vaccine – that could transform the lives of millions living in the Meningitis belt – was provided to people in Mali and Niger in December 2010. The vaccination campaign against meningococcal Meningitis A was also carried out in collaboration with health authorities in both countries.

“This vaccine could effectively prevent new outbreaks of Meningitis A in the future,” said Florence Fermon, MSF’s vaccination policy advisor. “But for the impact to really be felt, there needs to be a plan to roll out the new vaccine sufficiently in the 25 African countries that are most at risk of epidemics.”

For years, MSF has been mounting emergency responses to outbreaks in Africa’s ‘Meningitis belt’. In 2009, MSF vaccinated more than seven million people for Meningitis A. But the polysac-charide vaccine that has been available until now offered protection for only up to three years, which limited MSF’s response to trying to slow and stop an epidemic once it was under way.

“There are big benefits with this vaccine: protection can last for 10 years which means we can vaccinate people before epidemics hit and actually prevent the epidemics” said Florence Fermon. “Also, it can be used for children under the age of two years. But most importantly, there are wider benefits: the vaccine will stop transmission of the bacteria within a population by eliminating the carriage of the germ. It means that people who are vaccinated will not pass on the bacteria to those who are not.”

MSF’s efforts are part of a larger vaccination campaign led by the Ministries of Health in Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso and the WHO. MSF is planning to provide support to the Ministry of Health in Niger by vaccinating 600,000 people between the ages of 1 and 29 in the Dosso and Boboye districts. In Mali, MSF teams will vaccinate 800,000 people in the Koulikoro, Kati and Kangaba districts.

But according to MSF’s Access Campaign director Dr Tido von Schoen- Angerer, there are still some challenges including the funds needed to vaccinate people in the other 22 countries across the Meningitis belt and a phased plan for rolling out the vaccine.

“Thanks to an innovative way of doing research and development where the need for an affordable product was factored in from the very start, this vaccine costs only 40 US cents per dose” said Dr Schoen-Angerer. “But despite its low price, no donor has yet come forward to offer financial support to implement the vaccine beyond the first three countries. National authorities should receive the necessary support to vaccinate in sufficient numbers. Also, it has to be ensured that when children turn one year of age, they receive this vaccine as a part of routine immunisation activities. We can not afford to miss the opportunity to tackle such a deadly disease.”

Largest campaign

In 2009, MSF launched its largest ever vaccination campaign and vaccinated seven million people against Meningitis in Niger, Chad and Nigeria in response to an outbreak of the disease that claimed 1,900 lives.  

ate of upload: 25th Apr 2011


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