By Chioma Obinna & Gabriel Olawale
LAGOS — The World Health Organisation, WHO, yesterday, scored Nigeria alongside 15 other African countries high in the fight against the epidemics of meningococcal A meningitis.
Meningitis is a bacterial infection of the lining of the brain and spinal cord which has swept across 26 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa killing and disabling young people annually or cause severe brain damage within hours.
Making the commendation from findings reported in a special collection of 29 articles in the journal “Clinical Infectious Diseases,” with guest editors from the former Meningitis Vaccine Project, a partnership between WHO and the international health non-profit organization, PATH, the global health body noted that five years after an affordable meningitis A vaccine was introduced, its use has led to the control and near elimination of the deadly meningitis A disease in the African “meningitis belt.
The supplement, entitled “The Meningitis Vaccine Project: The development, licensure, introduction and impact of a new Group A meningococcal conjugate vaccine for Africa,” sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation also revealed that in 2013, only four laboratory-confirmed cases of meningitis A were reported by the 26 countries in the belt, which stretches across the continent from Senegal to Ethiopia.
In the opening article of the supplement, WHO Director-General, Dr Margaret Chan, together with public health leaders from PATH; UNICEF; Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance; the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation; and the vaccine manufacturer Serum Institute of India, among others, described the vaccine as a “stunning success.”
According to Chan, as of today, the vaccination campaigns reached more than 237 million people aged 1 through 29 years in 16 countries including Nigeria, Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Côte d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Senegal, Sudan, and Togo.
She further noted that out of the 26 countries in the African meningitis belt, 10 still need to fully roll out vaccination.
Also reacting to the success story, President and Chief Executive Officer of PATH, Steve Davis warned that the community should not risk squandering the amazing lifesaving investment.
His words, “Our partnership allowed us to develop an affordable, tailor-made vaccine for use against meningitis A in sub-Saharan Africa in record time and at less than one-tenth the cost of a typical new vaccine.”
In her submission, a member of the team that developed the vaccine also from WHO, Dr Marie-Pierre Preziosi stressed the need for countries to decide how best to sustain the protection that initial mass vaccination campaigns provided.,. “Our experience from other vaccine-preventable diseases has shown that if we let our guard down, these diseases will severely rebound.”
Another member, Dr Marc LaForce said a modelling study has shown that if no subsequent immunisation programme was implemented after a large one-off vaccination campaign, countries could expect to see “catastrophic resurgences in disease, after approximately 15 years. “The world came together to create tremendous health impact with this vaccine. We need to ensure that we finish the job with meningitis A and apply the lessons learned to the next generation of meningitis vaccines for Africa.”
Before 2010, meningitis epidemics were becoming more frequent and widespread throughout Africa, placing a great burden on individuals, families, and the health systems of affected countries.
MenAfriVac was introduced as an improvement over older polysaccharide vaccines, which can only be used after epidemics have started, do not protect the youngest children or infants, do not alter disease transmission and provide only short-term protection. Scientists found that 90 percent of individuals who were vaccinated with MenAfriVac still had protective antibodies in their system 5 years later.