MSF to Support Roll-Out of Promising New Vaccine for Meningitis

New vaccine could prevent future outbreaks, but funding and implementation challenges remain

This month, in Mali and Niger, MSF will support the provision of a promising new vaccine that could prevent future outbreaks of the deadliest form of meningitis.

Paris/Brussels, December 6, 2010 — A promising new vaccine that could prevent future outbreaks of the deadliest form of meningitis in Africa will be provided to people in Mali and Niger this month, with the support of the international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).

The vaccination campaigns against meningococcal meningitis A are being carried out in collaboration with health authorities in both countries.

“This vaccine could effectively prevent new outbreaks of meningitis A in the future,” said Florence Fermon, MSF’s vaccination policy advisor. “But for the impact to really be felt, there needs to be a plan to roll out the new vaccine sufficiently in the 25 African countries that are most at risk of meningitis epidemics.”

Meningitis A is the most common strain of the disease in Africa’s “meningitis belt,” an area stretching from Senegal to Ethiopia. Symptoms include sudden and intense headache, fever, nausea and vomiting. Death can follow within hours of the onset of symptoms. Without treatment, those infected only stand a 50 percent chance of survival.

MSF’s efforts are part of a larger vaccination campaign led by the Ministries of Health in Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso, and the World Health Organization. MSF is planning to provide support to the Ministry of Health in Niger in vaccinating 600,000 people between the ages of 1 and 29 in the Dosso and Boboye districts. In Mali, MSF teams will vaccinate 800,000 people in the Koulikoro, Kati, and Kangaba districts.

For years, MSF has responded to outbreaks in the meningitis belt. In 2009, MSF vaccinated more than seven million people for Meningitis A. But the available vaccine only offered protection for up to three years, which limited MSF’s ability to slow and stop an epidemic once it was already under way.

“There are big benefits with this vaccine: protection can last for 10 years, which means we can vaccinate people before epidemics hit and actually prevent the epidemics,” said Fermon. “Also, it can be used for children under the age of two. But most importantly, the vaccine will stop transmission of the bacteria within a population, creating what is known as herd immunity, because people who are vaccinated will not be able to pass on the bacteria to those who are not vaccinated.”

But challenges remain. The funds to vaccinate people in the other 22 countries across the meningitis belt have yet to be identified, and a plan for rolling out the vaccine also needs to be developed.

The new vaccine, MenAfriVac, is the product of an alternative research and development model that costs between two and six times less than typical vaccine development projects run by multinational pharmaceutical companies. The result is that a vaccine with characteristics specifically tailored to a particular population has been developed, with provisions to ensure its affordability, built in from the start.

“Thanks to an innovative way of doing research and development, this vaccine costs only 40 cents per dose,” said Dr Tido von Schoen-Angerer, director of MSF's Access Campaign. “But despite its low price, no donor has yet come forward to offer financial support to implement the vaccine beyond the first three countries. National authorities should receive the necessary support to vaccinate in sufficient numbers. Also, it has to be ensured that when children turn one, they receive this vaccine as part of the routine immunization schedule. We cannot afford to miss the opportunity to tackle such a deadly disease.”