LONDON (Reuters) - Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger had the lowest number of meningitis A cases in an epidemic season this year after the introduction of a cheap vaccine designed for Africa, World Health Organization (WHO) data showed Thursday.
The vaccine, called MenAfriVac and made by the Indian generic drugmaker Serum Institute, was developed for use against meningitis A, a type common in Africa, and at just 50 U.S. cents a dose was priced so that poorer countries could afford it.
The non-profit Meningitis Vaccine Project (MVP), which helped develop the shot, said that with the epidemic season almost over, WHO surveillance figures show just four confirmed meningitis A cases in Burkina Faso, the first country to introduce the vaccine nationwide.
Three of the four cases were in people from neighboring Togo who crossed the border for medical care, and the fourth was in a citizen of Burkina Faso who had not been vaccinated, MVP said. No confirmed cases were reported in Mali, while four cases were reported in Niger, all in unvaccinated people.
“While these initial data are extremely encouraging, continuing surveillance for cases of meningitis and robust systems for monitoring vaccination coverage will be crucial to confirm the impact of the vaccine as it is introduced across the meningitis belt,” MVP said in a statement.
Bacterial meningitis, called meningococcal meningitis, is a serious infection of the thin lining surrounding the brain and spinal cord. It can cause severe brain damage and is fatal in 50 percent of cases if untreated.
The so-called “meningitis belt” in sub-Saharan Africa, which has the highest rates of the disease in the world, stretches from Senegal in the west to Ethiopia in the east.
“The huge expectations that we had for this vaccine are now being fulfilled,” Adama Traore, Burkina Faso’s health minister, said in a statement. “Our country has been suffering from repeated meningococcal A epidemics for several decades. Meningitis A cases are close to zero this year, which will enable us to divert resources to help combat other diseases.”
Meningitis is one of the most feared infectious diseases and is particularly devastating to children and young adults. Even with antibiotic treatment, at least 10 percent of patients die and up to 20 percent more are left with brain damage, deafness, epilepsy, or necrosis leading to limb amputation.
According to MVP, the seasonal outbreak of meningitis across sub-Saharan Africa in 2009 infected at least 88,000 people and killed more than 5,000.
In an analysis in the Health Affairs journal Thursday, Marc LaForce, MVP’s director, and Jean-Marie Okwo-Bele, director of the WHO’s immunization, vaccines and biologicals department found that introducing the MenAfriVac shot in seven highly endemic African countries could save as much as $300 million over a decade and prevent a million cases of disease.
Reporting by Kate Kelland; Editing by Jon Loades-Carter