Experts fear the next meningitis explosion in Africa could have disastrous consequences
New type C strain meningitis infection strikes again, in Africa. In April, it already sickened 6.000 people and caused 500 deaths in Niger. As the vaccine for meningitis A (MenAfriVac) controlled the incidence of the disease years ago, the C strain will explode next year, experts say. Though the course of the infection with the bacteria Neisseria meningitidis is hard to predict, measures have to be taken in order to minimize the impact on the population.
The vaccine for meningitis C vaccines exists but is highly expensive: $20 per shot. To be effective, it should be shipped and shot before January, when the epidemic rates get high due to cold winds and higher exposure to the bacteria.
The International Coordinating Group for Vaccine Provision for Epidemic Meningitis Control needs 5 million doses of this vaccine. “If we don’t get the doses, we’ll be having a really hard time,” said Dr. William A. Perea, coordinator of the W.H.O.’s epidemic diseases control unit. “So we are making a little noise.”
At the time being, only 4 major pharmaceutical companies produce vaccines for other diseases than flu: GlaxoSmithKline, Sanofi-Pasteur, Merck and Pfizer. Because of this situation, the costs are very high and poor countries can not benefit from the vaccines they need.
A low-priced vaccine against meningitis C is being developed by The Serum Institute in India but will need at least another 5 years of testing and clinical trials. Also, old technology and bureaucracy put a hold on the immediate vaccine availability.
Meningitis is a debilitating disease in Africa, leaving people brain-damaged, paralysed, epileptic, deaf or without limbs. Families cannot afford the medical care needed for such cases.
Experts at the W.H.O. and Doctors Without Borders fear that the new strain will spread. They test Africans to see how many of them carry the disease, in a desperate attempt to try to control the epidemic to come. Unless something major happens, like a drop in the vaccine costs or a big donation so that poor countries can afford to buy the medicines, experts fear that the next meningitis epidemic could have the worst outcome.