Meningitis Vaccine in AfricaA new meningitis vaccine, NmCV-5, has been successfully tested in the West African countries of Mali and The Gambia. Trialed on a total of 1,800 people from age 2 to 29, the vaccine was shown to produce an immune response against the five main strains of meningitis bacteria that plague those living in what is known as the “African meningitis belt.” Once approved, NmCV-5 could become the most effective meningitis vaccine in Africa, unlocking the potential to prevent the suffering of millions.

What Is Meningitis?

Several different viruses and bacteria can cause Meningitis, a condition that inflames the protective membranes of the brain and spinal cord. While viral meningitis is more common and less serious than bacterial meningitis, it can still cause long-term problems and even be deadly in countries where populations do not have immediate access to treatment.

The U.K.’s National Health Service (NHS) estimates that one out of 10 cases of bacterial meningitis is lethal. Globally, about a quarter million people die from meningitis infections each year. Alarmingly, around 60% of meningitis-related deaths occur along the African meningitis belt, a region that runs from Gambia and Senegal in the west to Ethiopia in easternmost Africa. Furthermore, some 33% to 50% of survivors of bacterial meningitis face at least one permanent health problem. These include seizures, vision and hearing loss, limb loss and cognitive impairment.

Meningitis’ inordinate impact across sub-Saharan Africa is partly due to a lack of access to proper health care, which leads to late diagnosis and treatment. Moreover, the World Health Organization (WHO) states that bacterial meningitis, which is highly prevalent in the meningitis belt, can kill within as little as 24 hours.

NmCV-5 to the Rescue

The prevalence of five different strains of meningococcal bacteria across the meningitis belt has, until now, hindered efforts to eradicate the disease. That NmCV-5 proved effective in protecting against all five strains marks an unprecedented development in the field of meningitis vaccines in Africa.

The Serum Institute of India developed NmCV-5 in partnership with the global health organization PATH. Since its founding in 1966, the Serum Institute of India’s goal has been to make vaccines high-quality, affordable vaccines available to those around the world who need them most. To date, the company has reached more than 140 countries and supplied vaccines that have helped an estimated 65% of children globally. Significantly, the Serum Institute of India also collaborated with PATH and WHO to develop the Meningococcal A vaccine MenAfriVac, which has “virtually eliminated” this strain of the bacteria in the countries where it has been distributed.

Still, much work remains to reach the WHO’s Defeating Meningitis by 2030 goals, which include reducing meningitis infections by 50% and meningitis deaths by 70%. Fortunately, PATH, a global nonprofit dedicated to “improving public health” around the world, is working to bring vaccines and other forms of vital health care to those most in need. For instance, its “Zero-dose children” campaign centers on closing the vaccination gap for the world’s estimated 17 million unvaccinated children by addressing the socio-cultural and economic inequities that hinder access to immunizations.

Hope for a Meningitis-Free Future

NmCV-5 promises great hope for eradicating meningitis in Africa. Apart from NmCV-5 being effective against the newest emerging X strain of meningococcus bacteria, it also aims to be inexpensive and widely available in sub-Saharan Africa. This is a critical step toward a meningitis-free future, as other vaccines either provide immunity against fewer strains or have remained too costly to have widespread reach.

As Ed Clarke, one of the study’s co-authors, summarized, “We are excited about the results. We expect NmCV-5 to provide children and young adults with reliable protection against meningitis caused by the meningococcal bacteria in Africa.” He anticipates that the vaccine will be “game-changing for epidemic meningitis control in the ‘meningitis belt,’” stating, “We look forward to seeing the vaccine rolled out in the region as soon as possible.”

Tiffany Chan
Photo: Flickr