African countries could benefit from routine immunisation with an effective and safe meningitis – A vaccine for infants younger than a year old following its approval by the WHO.
MenAfriVac, approved this month (9 January) for infants, has since 2010 been used in mass immunisation of children and young adults from one to 29 years old, according to the Meningitis Vaccine Project (MVP) — a partnership between PATH and WHO — and Serum Institute of India Ltd that manufactures it.
The WHO adds that MenAfriVac is already present in 15 of the 26 countries of the African meningitis belt — Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Côte d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, the Gambia, Ghana, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sudan and Togo — with more than 215 million people having received it.
“Mass vaccination campaigns with MenAfriVac since 2010 have been highly effective in reducing the number of meningitis A cases, but epidemics will return when rising numbers of unprotected new-borns become a larger proportion of the total population over time,” says Kathy Neuzil, director of Vaccine Access and Delivery at PATH, a global health organisation headquartered in the United States.
Neuzil adds that meningococcal meningitis — a bacterial infection of the thin lining surrounding the brain and spinal cord — is common in 26 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, killing and disabling young people. She explains that many different pathogens cause meningitis but the infection resulting from group A, which exists mainly in Sub-Saharan Africa, is one of the most prevalent and severe.
“The disease can kill a child within hours. Before 2010, the epidemics were becoming more frequent and widespread throughout Africa,” Neuzil tells SciDev.Net. “Beyond the death and disability, epidemics can also incapacitate already fragile health systems.” This milestone, according to Neuzil, will help create population-wide immunity and long-term control benefitting everyone living across the meningitis belt.
She says it will also decrease the health burden for African countries by breaking meningitis epidemics cycle on individuals, families and the health systems of meningitis belt countries. The vaccine that cost around 50 US cents a dose could help other developing countries fight meningitis A, according to Neuzil.
Marie-Pierre Préziosi, director of MVP, says the WHO expects to secure firm and sustained political commitment of African governments through a continuous high level evidence-based advocacy conducted with its partners.
Collins Ouma, leader of health challenges research programme at Kenya-based African Population Health Research Center (APHRC), says routine vaccination will prevent a disease that has plagued the region for a century, and protect lives of African families and communities for years to come.
“This is a significant move since meningitis [caused by group A meningococcus] currently threatens 450 million individuals, mostly children and young adults, across 26 countries in the Sub-Saharan meningitis belt and kills thousands with large outbreaks.” Ouma adds, noting that an integrated disease and vaccine surveillance system is needed to aid its use.
But Ouma tells SciDev.Net that a possible challenge in implementing the initiative is the uncertainty regarding whether eliminating meningitis caused by group A meningococcus will be followed by an upsurge in cases of meningitis resulting from other bacteria.