The International Federation has given its support to an emergency appeal to donors for 10 million euros to replenish a stockpile of vaccines for Africa's "meningitis belt". Some 2,500 people have died of the disease this year. The arrival of a new strain has made action even more pressing.
As well as seeking to build up the depleted stockpile, the Federation is stressing the need to keep up the pressure on the pharmaceutical industry to produce an affordable vaccine that can prevent the three strains of meningitis to which Africa is prey.
The appeal, launched in Geneva on 7 November, comes two months before the start of the annual meningitis season. The World Health Organization - with the support of the International Federation, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and the UN Children's Fund - is calling on donors to come up with funds to rebuild a stockpile of vaccine and drugs.
The four organizations are all members of the International Coordinating Group (ICG) on vaccine provision for epidemic meningitis. Their appeal follows a meeting of the ICG last month in Ouagadougou.
Without a revolving stock of vaccines, countries hit by a meningitis outbreak would be left to deal with it alone and thousands of people, mostly children, would die as a result. Of those that survive, many would suffer severe neurological damage.
"One possible worst case scenario is for a country to face a large outbreak, with no vaccine and no treatment available," says Dr Hakan Sandbladh, emergency health adviser at the International Federation. "That is why it is necessary to maintain an emergency stockpile of vaccines Dr Sandbladh, who represented the Federation at the launch of the appeal, pointed out that the Federation was one of the users of this revolving stock, and would continue to procure vaccines and treatments from this mechanism during outbreak response operations.
In case of an outbreak, the Federation uses its own disaster response emergency funds, as well as funds generated from specific emergency appeals, to procure vaccines and treatments held in the revolving stock. This payment allows stocks to be maintained.
Meningitis outbreaks occur almost every year in the African meningitis belt, which stretches from Ethiopia in the east to Senegal in the west. In 2002 alone, there were at least 33,000 cases and 2,500 deaths. In the past ten years, there have been more than 700,000 cases.
This year saw the first major outbreak of a new strain of meningitis, W-135, which has complicated the task of dealing with epidemics. Between February and June 2002, 12,000 people in Burkina Faso were infected and 1,500 of them died.
Along with improved surveillance, treatment and diagnosis, the strategy to combat meningitis outbreaks in the African relies primarily on vaccination. Yet the current vaccine used there protects only against the two most commonly occurring strains (A and C).
The only vaccine currently available which provides protection against W-135 is a tetravalent vaccine, which protects against meningitis A,C, Y and W-135. Manufactured largely for sale in rich countries, the price of this vaccine is far beyond the reach of the affected countries in Africa.
ICG members are currently holding talks with the two main meningitis vaccine manufacturers, GlaxoSmithKline and Aventis Pasteur, about the possibility of producing a trivalent vaccine that would combat meningitis A,C, and W-135 at a price of US $1 per dose or less. The WHO says these talks are making good progress and that a solution is "within reach".
"The International Federation appeals to all partners, including the vaccine industry, so that humanitarian concerns will prevail over industrial or commercial concerns, in the search for a solution to the vaccine shortage crisis created by the new meningitis strain W135, and for a vaccine for meningitis outbreaks in Africa that remains affordable, and available in sufficient quantities," Sandbladh said.
The 10 million euros being sought in the appeal would buy enough vaccines and drugs for the next two epidemic seasons - about 10 million doses of the current bivalent vaccine, 4 million doses of a vaccine that could protect against W-135, as well as the drug, oily chloramphenicol.
WHO Press Release: 10 million Euros needed now to prepare for deadly new strain of Meningitis in Africa
Burkina Faso - Appeals, Updates & Reports relating to Meningitis
ARCHI 2010 - African Red Cross & Red Crescent Health Initiative 2010
19 September 2002 - Red Cross Red Crescent calls for solution on meningitis vaccine