As the Ministerial Conference on Immunisation in Africa commences today in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, vaccine experts and officials representing 26 African countries from the ‘meningitis belt’ celebrate the introduction of MenAfriVac® and its achievements in the continent’s public health system. In five years, MenAfriVac, which is designed, developed and produced for use in Africa, has nearly eliminated serogroup A meningococcal disease from the meningitis belt countries and is now being integrated into routine national immunisation programs.
Since the vaccine was first introduced in Burkina Faso back in 2010, the World Health Organisation (WHO) reports that 16 of the 26 countries in the African meningitis belt, between Senegal and Ethiopia, have conducted initial mass vaccination campaigns to protect their citizens. As a result of this, more than 235 million children and young adults, between the ages of 1 and 29 years old, have been immunised, eliminating meningitis A disease in those areas.
Manuel Fontaine, the United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund’s (UNICEF) Regional Director for West and Central Africa stated that “It’s clear that the rollout of the meningitis A vaccine has been a great success story in sub-Saharan Africa. At UNICEF, we’ll continue to work with national authorities, health workers and traditional and religious leaders so that vaccines remain well accepted and reach every community across the meningitis belt.”
The officials at the conference thereby plan a transition from mass campaigns to vaccine use in childhood immunisation programs to prevent the resurgence of deadly epidemics. Cases of meningitis A reduced from over 250,000 during an outbreak in 1996 to just 80 confirmed cases in 2015 and those were in countries that had not yet conducted mass immunisation campaigns.
Speaking ahead of the conference yesterday, Prof. Awa Marie Coll-Seck, the Minister of Health and Social Services of Senegal, encouraged African countries to reflect on the common goals and aspirations made in 2012 regarding achieving Universal Access to Immunisation by 2020 and improving healthcare for children.
“Thanks to immunisations, there has been a 55 percent reduction in child deaths in the past 25 years…Vaccines are a cost-effective proven investment that spur national development. Studies show that every dollar spent on immunization programs can provide economic returns up to sixteen times for a given country. Treating vaccine-preventable diseases places an enormous strain on public health systems by redirecting limited human and economic resources towards treatment instead of prevention.”
Furthermore, she stated it is essential to prioritise health for every child in every part of Africa to support the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals. According to her, the Ministerial Conference on Immunization in Africa represents a key moment for African nations to catalyse support and accountability to ensure that universal immunization is made a reality.
The evolution of MenAfriVac and its achievements in immunising Africa
The WHO and PATH, an international non-profit organisation specialised in global health innovation, partnered to form the Meningitis Vaccine Project (MVP) in 2001, in response to one of the worst epidemics of the infectious disease at the time. For over 14 years, MVP led the development, licensure and the introduction of a new vaccine against meningitis A – MenAfriVac. According to Steve Davis, president and CEO of PATH, “We have achieved something truly historic with MenAfriVac®—creating an affordable, effective, tailor-made vaccine for Africa.”
In 2008, the Gavi Alliance approved support to immunise the at-risk population in the 26 meningitis belt countries with preventive campaigns. Since then, Gavi has disbursed US$367 million to meningitis A programs for campaigns and an emergency stockpile.
Despite the giant strides made possible with the introduction of MenAfriVac, Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, the WHO Regional Director for Africa maintains that, “Our great success against meningitis A is by no means permanent. To sustain the protection that has been afforded to date against meningitis A, all at-risk countries must finish conducting vaccination campaigns and begin incorporating the vaccine into routine childhood immunisation programs.”
Dr. Seth Berkley, CEO of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, concurs by saying, “Meningitis A was a scourge across Africa’s meningitis belt for generations but today we can be proud that a safe, effective meningitis vaccine is protecting hundreds of millions of people from death and disability. “But we must not be complacent. It is critical that at-risk countries begin introducing this vaccine into their routine schedules and ensuring every child is reached and protected.”
Presently, public health experts who convened at the MVP Closure Conference yesterday are also planning on tackling other disease-causing strains of meningococcal meningitis such as serogroups W, X and C, which also cause epidemic outbreaks in the meningitis belt countries. In the first months of 2015, meningitis C was identified as contributing to a meningitis outbreak in Niger and Nigeria.
Adar Poonawalla, CEO and executive director of Serum Institute of India Private Ltd. disclosed that his company is partnering with PATH on a pentavalent meningitis vaccine—targeting five meningitis strains, A, C, W, X and Y— which will begin clinical trials this year. According to Poonawalla, “To rid the world of meningitis epidemics altogether, we need to go after all the major strains in one public health vaccine.”