Red Cross Red Crescent welcomes step forward in fight against meningitis in Africa, but urges greater efforts

Published: 17 March 2003

About 1,000 people have died in sub-Saharan Africa in the past two months in outbreaks of meningitis due to the A and W-135 strains of the disease, including over 600 in Burkina Faso. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said today this situation highlights the pressing need for a new vaccine that treats all three meningitis strains found in Africa to be made available rapidly, in sufficient quantities and at an affordable price.

The first one million doses of such a trivalent vaccine arrived in Burkina Faso last month thanks to the efforts of the World Health Organization, GlaxoSmithKline and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. It is currently being used in epidemic districts, and its effectiveness in outbreak conditions evaluated.

“This is a significant step and a tribute to public-private partnership,” says Dr Bernard Morinière, senior epidemiologist at the International Federation. “It is remarkable that this vaccine, which did not exist last year, is now being administered to children in Burkina Faso. Assuming the current evaluation is positive, the next challenge will be to mobilize sufficient resources to procure vaccine in larger quantities, if similar W-135 outbreaks keep occurring in the region,” he adds.

This is the second successive year that Burkina Faso has been gripped by an epidemic of meningococcal meningitis, caused in part by W-135. Already more than 4,000 cases have been registered, of whom over 600 have died. Last year, in Africa’s first outbreak caused by W-135, over 14,000 cases and 1,700 deaths were recorded. At that time, the only vaccine available that provided protection against it was an expensive tetravalent vaccine beyond the financial means of affected African countries.

The new vaccine is being distributed through the International Coordinating Group on Vaccine Provision for Epidemic Meningitis Control (ICG), which includes the WHO, UNICEF, Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) and the International Federation. The ICG manages a stockpile of vaccines and drugs for the "meningitis belt”, making it possible to respond rapidly to outbreaks in countries without the means to maintain their own contingency stocks.

Apart from Burkina Faso, a further 366 people have died of meningitis this year in outbreaks in Ghana, Nigeria, and Niger, highlighting the need for a vaccine that can tackle all the strains present in sub-Saharan Africa.

Through the ICG and in collaboration with MSF, the International Federation has released 250,000 doses of bivalent vaccine. These were some of the 1.2 million doses procured in December 2002 with a contribution from the Norwegian government through the Norwegian Red Cross. The vaccine will be used in a vaccination campaign in epidemic districts in Niger.
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