Millions of people across Africa are to be vaccinated against a new killer
strain of meningitis.
The World Health Organization has shipped an initial batch of 100,000
vaccines to Burkina Faso.
It follows fears of a possible epidemic across what health chiefs
describe as Africa's meningitis belt, which stretches from Senegal to
We have great hopes
that this newly formulated vaccine will save many lives
The vaccine will protect against the typical meningitis strains A and C
and also the virulent W135 strain.
This strain of the disease has been found in sporadic cases on the
continent last year.
It is believed to have claimed the lives of 1,743 people in Burkina
Faso last year. So far this year, it has been linked to 244 deaths.
The WHO is planning to ship at least 3m doses of the vaccine over the
coming months. It will be made available at reduced cost to governments in
The vaccine, was developed by GlaxoSmithKline, and funded for the most
part by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Until now, a vaccine covering the W135 strain cost between US $5 and US
$50 per dose, which meant it was out of reach of many countries. The new
vaccine will be available at US $1.50 per dose.
"It is possible that the W135 strain will not remain contained in
Burkina Faso, but that it will spread to other countries in the meningitis
belt, just like the A strain did 15 years ago," said Daniel Tarantola,WHO
director of vaccines and biologicals.
"But we have great hopes that this newly formulated vaccine will save
many lives and we are working on other vaccines that may, in the years to
come, break the cycle of death and illness due to meningitis in this
Dr Gro Harlem Brundtland, WHO director general, praised the speed with
which the vaccines have been developed and shipped.
"The record time in which we've come up with a vaccine and are making
it available to those who need it is a testament to the fact that
public-private partnerships can work for the betterment of health," she
Meningitis outbreaks occur almost every year during the dry season in
the African meningitis belt.
The crucial epidemic period is usually in the first months of the year.
In 2002 alone, there were at least 44,280 cases and 5,531 deaths reported
to WHO's surveillance systems in the African region.
Medicins sans Frontiers welcomed the breakthrough but said the 3m doses
would not be enough if the disease spread.
In a statement, it said: "If the W135 strain spreads to other countries
in the African meningitis belt, the need could be as man as 20 to 50
million doses in the next five years."