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EDITIONS
Friday, 7 February, 2003, 10:47 GMT
Fears over Africa meningitis epidemic
At least 3m doses of the vaccine will be shipped
Millions of people across Africa are to be vaccinated against a new killer strain of meningitis.

The World Health Organization has shipped an initial batch of 100,000 vaccines to Burkina Faso.

It follows fears of a possible epidemic across what health chiefs describe as Africa's meningitis belt, which stretches from Senegal to Ethiopia.

We have great hopes that this newly formulated vaccine will save many lives

Daniel Tarantola,
WHO
The vaccine will protect against the typical meningitis strains A and C and also the virulent W135 strain.

This strain of the disease has been found in sporadic cases on the continent last year.

It is believed to have claimed the lives of 1,743 people in Burkina Faso last year. So far this year, it has been linked to 244 deaths.

International programme

The WHO is planning to ship at least 3m doses of the vaccine over the coming months. It will be made available at reduced cost to governments in 21 countries.

The vaccine, was developed by GlaxoSmithKline, and funded for the most part by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Until now, a vaccine covering the W135 strain cost between US $5 and US $50 per dose, which meant it was out of reach of many countries. The new vaccine will be available at US $1.50 per dose.

"It is possible that the W135 strain will not remain contained in Burkina Faso, but that it will spread to other countries in the meningitis belt, just like the A strain did 15 years ago," said Daniel Tarantola,WHO director of vaccines and biologicals.

"But we have great hopes that this newly formulated vaccine will save many lives and we are working on other vaccines that may, in the years to come, break the cycle of death and illness due to meningitis in this area."

Dr Gro Harlem Brundtland, WHO director general, praised the speed with which the vaccines have been developed and shipped.

"The record time in which we've come up with a vaccine and are making it available to those who need it is a testament to the fact that public-private partnerships can work for the betterment of health," she said.

Meningitis outbreaks occur almost every year during the dry season in the African meningitis belt.

The crucial epidemic period is usually in the first months of the year. In 2002 alone, there were at least 44,280 cases and 5,531 deaths reported to WHO's surveillance systems in the African region.

See also:

09 Mar 99 | Medical notes
10 Apr 02 | Health
03 Jan 01 | Health
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