Geneva, September 25th 2003 - The international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) warns that thousands of lives could be lost in Africa if donors fail to fund the production of a new meningitis vaccine in the next two weeks. Prompt action is needed to ensure supplies will be available when the next meningitis epidemic season begins in Africa in late 2003 or early 2004. So far, MSF is the only organization to allocate funds (€ 1 million) to purchase the vaccine.
The emergence of a new meningitis strain, W135, was confirmed in countries belonging to the African meningitis belt in 2002 when it infected over 13 000 people and killed 1500 in an outbreak in Burkina Faso. At the time, no vaccine against the new strain was available in adequate quantities and at an affordable price, which led to vaccination campaigns in Burkina Faso being interrupted because the traditional bivalent vaccine was not effective against the new strain.
Negotiations led by the World Health Organization (WHO) resulted in GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) developing a new vaccine for African countries. Licensed and introduced in early 2003, two million doses of the new trivalent (ACW135) vaccine were used with success in another meningitis outbreak in Burkina Faso in 2003.
Responding to requests from WHO and other organizations involved in meningitis control in Africa, such as MSF, GSK is committed to continuing the production of the new vaccine and to making it available at a differential price € 1 per dose) for use in the next epidemic season, but this requires an order of 6 million doses by the end of September 2003 in order to meet delivery schedules as the vaccine manufacturing process takes a minimum of three months.
MSF announced it will buy one million doses of the new vaccine. "This is one emergency that can be averted if action is taken now. We are putting € 1 million on the table but this needs to be matched by other contributions in the next two weeks," said Dr Bernard Pécoul of MSF. "If donors only start reacting once an epidemic is there, it will be too late as immunization needs to be begun at the very outset of an epidemic to be effective."
"GSK has done the right thing: the appropriate product is there, at a differential price," Dr Pécoul said. "But where are the buyers?"
Emergency preparedness is a government responsibility. MSF is calling on developed country governments to immediately allocate funds to secure an adequate meningitis vaccine supply for African countries.
MSF has been working to curb meningitis epidemics in Africa for the past ten years and vaccinates 3 to 5 million people against the disease every year.