On the first day of the meningitis A vaccination campaign in the West African country of Burkina Faso, nurse Doma Guere and a small team of his fellow health workers vaccinated 4,916 people—about one person protected against the deadly disease every nine seconds of a 12-hour working day.
On the second day, the team rose in the dark to set up a vaccination station at the Koubri village health center. They gave their first shot shortly after sunrise.
As the afternoon shadows lengthen across the health center’s tidy dirt yard, Doma surveys the still-growing line of his neighbors. All are waiting for a dose of MenAfriVac™, the new vaccine against the epidemic meningitis A that regularly envelopes Burkina Faso and the 24 other countries of the African “meningitis belt.” Vendors stroll up and down the line, carrying plastic bags of water and flavored drinks on trays atop their heads. Children fidget while their mothers hold tight to their hands. A group of teenage girls, their dresses bright purple, yellow, and blue, strides purposefully into the yard.
A Chance to Escape a Killer
The new vaccine is the result the Meningitis Vaccine Project, a partnership between global health nonprofit PATH and the World Health Organization. The vaccine is manufactured by the Serum Institute of India, Ltd., which agreed to make it at a price that African ministers of health identified as affordable—less than $.50 (U.S.) a dose.
Getting MenAfriVac™ from the Serum Institute's manufacturing facility in India to a storage facility in West Africa is a complex and exacting task. But getting the vaccine from the storage facility to the people who need it most requires something more: the unstinting work of people like Doma.
Getting vaccinated at the Koubri Health Center.
Doma, 36, began working at the Koubri health center more than three years ago, just as the last epidemic wave of meningitis A to hit the region receded. Now, surveying the crowds of mothers, children, and young adults waiting for vaccine, he says he’s not surprised by the turnout. Meningitis, he says, is a killer that moves with lightning speed, often taking lives within two or three days of first symptoms. The people of Koubri know that.
“People panic when they hear there may be one or two confirmed cases of meningitis,” he says. “If anyone has a fever or a belly ache they bring him here because they are so afraid it’s meningitis.”
Better Days in Koubri
As people continue to arrive for the vaccine, Doma directs them to the line, a smile on his face and a greeting for every new arrival. If the days are long during a vaccination campaign, he says, they're longer during an epidemic, when panicked parents overwhelm the small staff at the health center. Ensuring that his neighbors get the vaccine now, he says, means more time to spend on other needs in the future.
And Doma has ambitious plans for the future. If a vaccine can bring epidemic meningitis under control, he says, he wants to spend the time he once dedicated to this disease working to improve the vaccination rate for measles. He wants to slow the march of HIV through his community, and perhaps even consider more mundane preventive health measures taken for granted in wealthier countries—better nutrition, for example.
He patrols the line of people waiting for a vaccine one more time, stopping to ask mothers how their families are faring, and whether their older children got their shot at school. He smiles as they answer. The days ahead, Doma says, can be good ones.