NIH supports meningitis vaccine effort in Africa

Marc LaForce

Marc LaForce, the director of the Meningitis Vaccine Project, recently spoke about the successes of the new MenAfriVac vaccine during a National Institutes of Health presentation.

LaForce worked with the National Institutes of Health and the MVP, a partnership between the World Health Organization and the Program for Appropriate Technology in Health, for close to a decade to develop a cost-effective vaccine for Group A meningococcal disease. Within a few years, the disease was developed and distributed to more than 10 million people.

Bacterial meningitis is an infection of the lining surrounding the spinal cord and brain. Sub-Saharan Africa is referred to as the meningitis belt because of the way the disease spreads during the dry season. Ninety percent of the world’s disease burden of serogroup A meningitis occurs in the area.

An outbreak in 1996-1997 infected 250,000 people and killed more than 25,000.

“There’s an enormous amount of disease caused by this pathogen,” LaForce said.

The MVP was established with support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to produce a vaccine for the disease. The Serum Institute of India agreed to produce the vaccine for less than 50 cents a dose, the SII and SyncoBioPartners in the Netherlands provided raw materials, and the NIH helped to transfer the conjugation technology to the SII at close to no cost.

India cleared MenAfriVac in December 2009 and the vaccine was qualified by the WHO in June 2010. Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso began using the vaccine on December 6, 2010. Within 10 days, the countries immunized 10.8 million people against serogroup A meningitis.

“This was utterly remarkable,” LaForce said.

After reporting 26,878 cases of meningitis A in 2007, Burkina Faso reported only 2,624 cases in 2011.

The WHO and PATH plan to expand the immunization effort by 2016 to the 22 countries where the vaccine is not yet available.

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