An expert meeting convened by the United Nations World Health Organization (WHO) and its partners on the emergence of an epidemic strain of meningitis in Africa has concluded that a readily available supply of affordable vaccine is vital for the success of a new action plan to tackle the outbreak. Experts from across the world gathered over the past week in Burkina Faso, the first African country to experience an epidemic of a new strain of meningitis known as W135, to produce a plan for medical, political and financial action. The outbreak, which began in February, infected more than 12,000 and killed almost 1,500 people. “Countries in Africa have no choice but to respond to epidemics of meningitis,” said Dr. Daniel Tarantola, WHO Director of Vaccines and Biologicals. “We must help them to protect their children against a disease that cripples and kills.” The experts agreed that the most important tool required is a vaccine that can be used to tackle all future outbreaks of meningitis in Africa. Such a vaccine would have to cover three different strains of the bacteria which have caused outbreaks in the past – including the new W135 strain – and which could cause new epidemics as early as the end of this year. A vaccine that contains all three strains does exist and is used routinely in developed countries, but the current market price – ranging from $4 to $50 a dose – is far beyond what African countries can afford. The experts agreed that a price of more than $1 per dose for this “tetravalent” vaccine would severely hamper its use in epidemic situations in Africa and that every effort should be made to lower the price while boosting production. Negotiations are already under way to bring down the cost of the vaccine. Other vital measures to be taken in preparation for the next potential outbreak of W135 include improved disease surveillance in health clinics and hospitals, a better linked network of district laboratories that would serve as an early warning system, the urgent testing of new medicines to treat those who become infected, and an enhanced capacity to deliver the vaccines quickly to where they are needed.

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