This week, someone in northern Nigeria—likely a child or teenager—will offer an arm to a health worker, receive a shot of a revolutionary vaccine called MenAfriVac®, and become the 100 millionth person in Africa to be protected against an infection of the brain and spinal cord called meningitis A.
Almost two years ago to the day, I remember sitting at home in Seattle and watching a video of a toddler half a world away receiving one of the first official MenAfriVac® shots at a ceremony in the West African country of Burkina Faso. A few fat tears rolled down the chubby cheeks of Pitroipa Boukare—who was barely three years old at the time—but she soon recovered and gazed with curiosity at the joyful and excited adults around her.
Photo credit: PATH/Gabe Bienczycki
Thousands of miles away, I shared their great excitement and anticipation. I felt a bit of awe, too, at what creative thinking and innovative partnerships had brought to the people of Burkina Faso that day. At the time I was a board member of PATH, an international nonprofit and partner in the development of MenAfriVac®, and I knew that Pitroipa’s vaccination signaled a hopeful new phase in an groundbreaking project driven from the start by the needs of Africans themselves. Moreover, it meant the beginning of the end for a disease that has ravaged a wide swath of sub-Saharan Africa for more than a century.
A remarkable story ending in lives saved
MenAfriVac®’s reach to 100 million is a milestone in the history of a critically important vaccine. Developed by the Meningitis Vaccine Project, a collaboration between PATH and the World Health Organization and funded largely by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the MenAfriVac® vaccine is remarkable in many ways.
It’s the first vaccine designed specifically to address the most destructive type of meningitis in Africa, and the first introduced in Africa before other continents. It was developed at less than a tenth the cost of a typical new vaccine and is priced at an appropriate level for low-income countries: less than US$.50 a dose. With crucial contributions from public, private, and independent nongovernmental partners on four continents—including vaccine manufacturer Serum Institute of India, Ltd.—MenAfriVac®’s development provides a potential blueprint for the vaccines of the future.
Photo credit: UNICEF
But most importantly, it eliminates the fear of meningitis that has stalked families in Africa for generations. So far, the vaccine has reached 10 of the 26 countries where epidemics are frequent, and recent evidence suggests that meningitis A is being eliminated there.
As I head to the GAVI Partners Forum this week, I’ve been thinking about MenAfriVac®’s success and what it means for the future of vaccine development and delivery. MenAfriVac® proves once again that with collaboration, resources, and a focus on the needs and realities of developing countries, we can address the diseases that needlessly kill and disable people worldwide. Our challenge now is to make sure this vaccine and others reach all of those who, like Pitroipa, need no longer fear a disease that once seemed unstoppable.
To learn more about how you can get involved, visit PATH’s website.