On November 10th, 2015, the WHO issued a press release stating that five years after the introduction and incorporation of an affordable conjugate meningitis A vaccine in the “meningitis belt” of Africa, that area has controlled and nearly eliminated the deadly meningitis A disease. In 2014, there were only 4 laboratory confirmed cases of meningitis A in the 26 “meningitis belt” countries. Compare that to 2009 when 80,000 cases of meningitis A were reported in the same 26 countries.
The meningitis A vaccine, commonly known as MenAfriVac, was developed in response to a plea for help after a 1996 outbreak of meningitis A in sub-Saharan Africa infected over 250,000 and killed over 25,000 in a few months. Meningitis A is a bacterial infection of the brain and spinal cord. It is an airborne disease mostly affecting infants, children and young adults. It routinely kills about 10% of patients and of those that survive, 1 in 5 suffer severe brain damage or hearing loss.
In the last five years over 200 million infants, children and young adults have been vaccinated for meningitis A in 16 of the 26 countries that make up the “meningitis belt”. The remaining 10 countries still need to fully implement vaccination campaigns. By 2020 the vaccine is expected to prevent over 1 million cases of meningitis A, 150,000 deaths and 250,000 cases of severe disability.
While the WHO calls this vaccine a “stunning success” they still caution that meningitis A could return if MenAfriVac is not added to routine childhood immunizations. Modeling suggests that if immunization programs do not incorporate MenAfriVac after the one-off vaccination campaign, “meningitis belt” countries could expect to see a catastrophic resurgence in about 15 years.