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» 14.11.2007 - Gambia's health minister fired
» 31.10.2007 - Gambia: New malaria drugs available
» 08.03.2007 - Mali govt to "beat malaria this year"
» 23.02.2007 - Gambia expels UN rep over AIDS cure grills
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Cheap meningitis vaccine developed in West Africa

Mothers wait to get their children vaccinated against meningitis

© Monique Berlier/PATH/afrol News
afrol News, 9 June
- Scientists operating in West Africa are optimistic about a new meningitis vaccine that "could signal an end to the disease in Africa." Tested on hundreds of children in Mali and The Gambia, the vaccine had so far proven effective and could be sold for as little as 40 US cents a dose, the Meningitis Vaccine Project (MVP) holds.

The project yesterday released new data on the performance of a meningitis vaccine in West African children, suggesting that the new vaccine - expected to sell initially for 40 US cents a dose - "will be much more effective in protecting African children and their communities than any vaccine currently on the market in the region."

The MVP is a partnership between the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Seattle-based non-profit group PATH. Together with an Indian company, MVP works on developing a new meningitis vaccine to help fight the disease's epidemic-like extension in 21 countries of tropical Africa, the so-called the "meningitis belt".

The preliminary results of their study, following vaccine trials, "reveal that the vaccine could eventually slash the incidence of epidemics in the meningitis belt," MVP says in a statement. The vaccine on the long run is expected to block infection among the entire population.

Meningitis is an infection of the meninges, the thin lining that surrounds the brain. It is one of the world's most dreaded infectious diseases. Even with antibiotic treatment, at least 10 percent of patients die, with up to 20 percent left with permanent problems, such as mental retardation or deafness. Africa has been relatively spared in recent years, but last year's 41,526 reported cases and the 47,925 cases reported from 1 January to 6 May 2007 bring the fear that a new epidemic wave may have begun in sub-Saharan Africa.

The MVP and WHO thus hope the vaccine, when proven safe and efficient, could prevent further epidemics. "When it becomes part of the public health arsenal, this vaccine will make a real difference in Africa," said MVP director Marc LaForce. "The vaccine will allow elimination of the meningococcal epidemics that have afflicted the continent for more than 100 years," he added.

The new meningococcal conjugate vaccine trial, in 12- to 23-month-olds in Mali and The Gambia, had shown that "the vaccine was safe, and that it produced antibody levels almost 20 times higher than those obtained with the marketed polysaccharide (un-conjugated) vaccine. This means that protection from serogroup A meningococcal meningitis is expected to last for several years," MVP researchers conclude.

Results had been so good that MVP already is eying a hope for the total elimination of meningitis. "People between the ages of 1 and 29 years of age will be protected by receiving a single dose in large mass vaccination campaigns. The large campaigns are expected to create herd immunity, and eventually, elimination of the disease," said Mr LaForce.

The African "meningitis belt" stretches from Senegal and The Gambia in the west to Ethiopia in the east. The belt has an at-risk population of about 430 million. The largest epidemic wave ever recorded in history swept across the entire region in 1996–1997, causing over 250,000 cases and 25,000 deaths.

Most of the research into the new vaccine has been made in West Africa and in India. Strongly involved were the Centre pour le Développement des Vaccins-Mali (CVD-Mali), a division of the Bamako Ministry of Health, which conducted research and provided training in vaccinology and tropical diseases in the country.

Also involved was the Medical Research Council (MRC) Laboratories in The Gambia, which in a multi-disciplinary approach, has combined field, clinical, and laboratory facilities and its good relationships with the community.

Samba Sow, principal investigator at CVD-Mali, said, "Some of the families who participated in the study have lost several members of their family to meningococcal meningitis. Those who have not been directly affected know the terrible impact that the disease has on the community. There is a lot of support for the clinical study and the new vaccine in the Bamako community."

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