Massive Vaccination Campaign Against Meningitis Launched in Africa

A new vaccine called MenAfriVac that could potentially eliminate meningococcal meningitis in 25 African countries was rolled out late last year by the Meningitis Vaccine Project (MVP), a partnership between the World Health Organization and PATH, a non-profit global health organization based in Seattle.

A vaccination campaign was launched in the western African countries of Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger, with neighboring countries soon to follow, according to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, a major backer of MVP.

The vaccine was developed to combat the group A strain of meningitis—the most common strain of meningitis in Africa—and when fully implemented will reach an estimated 12.5 million Africans, according to Marc LaForce, the director of the Geneva-based MVP. “Africa is the only place on Earth that continues to have these impressively large outbreaks of group A meningitis,” he says, adding that an estimated 450 million Africans are at risk of contracting group A meningitis. Epidemics occur every seven to 14 years on the continent. In 2009, a seasonal outbreak of meningitis cutting across portions of sub-Saharan Africa infected 88,000 people and resulted in more than 5,000 deaths.

LaForce compares the logistics required to carry out the massive vaccination campaign to the invasion of Normandy. “Over a couple of weeks more than 11,000 vaccinators in three different countries will be administering vaccines to 12.5 million people,” he says.

MenAfriVac, which health authorities have held up as a standard for the future of global vaccine development, is based on an older meningitis vaccine that offered short-lived protection coupled with a protein from the tetanus vaccine that produces a more potent immune response. The vaccine was manufactured by the Serum Institute in India at a cost of around US$50 million and is being distributed at a cost of less than 50 cents a dose.

The GAVI Alliance, a Geneva-based non-profit organization that partners with drug companies, health agencies, and charities to provide support for vaccination programs in developing countries, has contributed more than $85 million to vaccinate Africans against meningitis in three countries, but says an additional $475 million will be needed to complete the campaign. Donors supporting the effort thus far include the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, Médecins sans Frontières, and the United Nations Children’s Fund. —Regina McEnery