MenAfriVac succeeds in sub-Saharan Africa, but the fight isn't over yet

A girl receives the MenAfriVac vaccine in Benin.--Courtesy of the WHO/Rodrigue Barry

Five years after the affordable meningitis jab, MenAfriVac, was introduced in Africa's "meningitis belt," it has nearly eliminated the disease on the continent, the World Health Organization and PATH announced on Tuesday. But scientists are warning against overconfidence, predicting that meningitis could bounce back if immunization efforts let up now.

In 2010, MenAfriVac was approved for people aged one to 29. In January this year, the WHO approved the vaccine for use in the routine immunization of infants less than one year old in sub-Saharan Africa. And unless the 26 countries in the "meningitis belt" follow the recommendation and add the jab to its routine immunization schedule, scientists said, we could be looking at a "catastrophic resurgence" within 15 years, a release said.

Dr. Jean-Marie Okwo-Bele, Director of Immunization, Vaccines and Biologicals at WHO

"We have nearly eliminated meningitis A epidemics from Africa, but the fact is the job is not yet done," said Dr. Jean-Marie Okwo-Bele, director of immunization, vaccines and biologicals at WHO, in a statement. "Our dramatic gains against meningitis A through mass vaccination campaigns will be jeopardized unless countries maintain a high level of protection by incorporating the meningitis A vaccine into their routine childhood immunization schedules."

At 50 cents a dose, the vaccine was developed following a meningitis A outbreak in sub-Saharan Africa that infected more than 250,000 and killed more than 25,000. PATH's Meningitis Vaccine Project partnered with SynCo Bio Partners and the Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research to develop the jab, and with the Serum Institute of India to manufacture it. In follow-up studies, the vaccine showed 90% of 900 vaccinated people still had antibodies 5 years later.

In January, the WHO said it was working with African countries on a transition from mass campaigns to routine immunization. Seven countries were on track to introduce MenAfriVac in their routine system as early as 2015, it said.

According to the statement, in mid-2015, MenAfriVac campaigns have reached more than 220 million people aged one to 29 in 16 "meningitis belt" countries, including Burkina Faso, Cameroon and Ghana. Where it has been used, meningitis A has "disappeared." Ten countries still need to fully implement vaccination campaigns.

"Our partnership allowed us to develop an affordable, tailor-made vaccine for use against meningitis A in sub-Saharan Africa in record time and at less than one-tenth the cost of a typical new vaccine," said Steve Davis, president and CEO of PATH, in the statement. "The global community should not risk squandering this amazing lifesaving investment."

- here's the release