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Africa close to eliminating meningitis A

CURING AFRICA: The MenAfriVac vaccine was developed and integrated five years ago [Photo credit: WHO/R. Barry]

FIVE YEARS after developing and integrating a meningitis A vaccine, the spread of the disease in sub-Saharan Africa’s “meningitis belt” has been controlled and, in some cases, effectively eliminated, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Scientists have found that 90 per cent of individuals vaccinated with a meningitis A vaccine costing less than 50 cents a dose had protective antibodies in their system five years later, bringing Africa close to elimination of the “highly feared’ disease on the continent, the WHO announced yesterday (Nov 10).

In the announcement, WHO said: “For a century, epidemics of meningococcal A meningitis, a bacterial infection of the lining of the brain and spinal cord, have swept across 26 countries in sub-Saharan Africa killing and disabling young people every year.”

“The disease is highly feared on the continent; it can kill or cause severe brain damage within hours,” it said.

“But just five years after an affordable meningitis A vaccine was introduced, its use has led to the control and near elimination of deadly meningitis A."

MenAfriVac, which costs less than 50 cents per dose, was given to 220 million people in more than half of the 26 countries that comprise the meningitis belt, stretching across the continent from Senegal to Ethiopia.

WHO announced that among the countries that participated in the campaign meningitis A “disappeared wherever the vaccine was used.”

In 2009, for example, there were 1,994 laboratory cases of the disease reported in the 26 relevant countries. In 2013, only four cases were reported.

Despite what researchers and vaccine stakeholders have called a “stunning success,” scientists warn that unless countries in the meningitis belt continue to supply infants with the meningitis A vaccine, the disease could resurface in 15 years.

“We have nearly eliminated meningitis A epidemics from Africa, but the fact is the job is not yet done,” WHO director of immunisation, vaccines and biologicals Dr Jean-Marie Okwo-Bele 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.”

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