The Meningitis Vaccine project is a fantastic success story. Prior to December 2010, the approach to protecting people from meningococcal epidemic meningitis in Africa was inadequate and reactive. This preventable disease was needlessly killing lives. A vaccine is now available for 50 cents per dose.
I was in Africa when the largest meningitis epidemic on record hit in 1996, causing over 250,000 cases and 25,000 deaths. The epidemic caused social and economic activities to grind to a halt.
The health officials at that time were overwhelmed. They contacted the World Health Organization (WHO) to request a new approach for dealing with this problem. WHO brought together an international coalition including the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, PATH, and other stakeholders and they arrived at one recommendation—a new vaccine model needed to be produced that would prevent epidemic meningitis from occurring again. That led to the formation of the Meningitis Vaccine project—a partnership between WHO and PATH with funding from The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
After ten years of research and development a vaccine was licensed in June 2010 and has been introduced in three countries in sub-Saharan Africa: Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger.
Within two weeks of introduction, over 10 million people were vaccinated in Burkina Faso, 4 million in Mali, and 3 million in Niger. To date nearly 20 million people have received the new vaccine and only 8 cases, who were unvaccinated persons, have been reported in these 3 countries.
But there is more work to be done.
There are 22 remaining countries in the meningitis belt that have yet to introduce the vaccine. The GAVI Alliance is in the process of coordinating activities to move the vaccines into the remaining countries.
If we are able to do this, then epidemic meningitis will become a thing of the past in sub-Saharan Africa, and future generations can live without fear of this terrible disease.