Starting this week, families in sub-Saharan Africa will finally get a long-term solution against a deadly disease. A new meningitis vaccine called MenAfriVac™ is reaching millions of people in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger beginning today, and neighboring countries will soon follow.
This is the first vaccine ever developed to provide sustained protection against the specific strain that causes most outbreaks of bacterial meningitis in Africa’s meningitis belt. More than 450 million people are at risk of meningococcal A meningitis caused by Neisseria meningitidis, which can explode in large epidemics. The disease kills 1 in 10 people who get sick, and leaves a quarter of survivors deaf or with other severe disabilities.
One story that has stuck with me shows just how difficult meningitis can be in Africa. A few years ago, I met a young man named Jean-François when he was hospitalized in Ouagadougou with meningitis. He was 18 years old, captain of his soccer team, first in his class, a role model. Though he was on his way to recovery, he suffered some brain damage and was completely deaf.
It’s not easy to be deaf in Africa, but Jean-François and his family soon adapted, including developing their own sign language to communicate. After a few months back home, things were going well. But one day, when he was playing soccer outside with his siblings, Jean-François ran into the road to retrieve the ball and didn’t hear the truck that hit him.
I’m convinced this young man could’ve been the president of his country, but a complication from a preventable disease ultimately took his life. It just wasn’t right. Jean-François’s story has inspired me to press on and find a solution for meningitis, even when the process has been challenging. And it has been.
But in less than 10 years, PATH and the World Health Organization, with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, have developed the new vaccine that costs less than $0.50 (U.S.) per dose, a price African countries can afford. We started with nothing—no vaccine ingredients, no manufacturing facility—just a plea from African health ministers for a sustainable solution. Now, millions of families have a chance at protection and an opportunity for a healthier future.