A cheap and more effective vaccine against Meningitis A could be available within four years, according to experts.
The vaccine is more effective in children
Scientists at the Meningitis Vaccine Project (MVP) plan to start clinical trials of their vaccine within the next year.
Early tests suggest it can provide long lasting protection against the A strain of the disease.
While a vaccine exists for this strain, it is not effective in young children - the group most at risk - and only lasts for three to five years in adults.
Meningitis A is rare in the UK. However, it has caused a large number of deaths in some parts of the world, particularly sub-Saharan Africa where it has reached epidemic proportions.
Scientists at MVP - a partnership between the World Health Organization and the Seattle-based Program for Appropriate Technology in Health - believe their vaccine could help to save thousands of lives each year.
They have struck deals with the private sector to develop and test the vaccine and to insure it will be available to countries in the developing world cheaply. The vaccine is expected to cost well under US$1 per dose.
Dr F. Marc LaForce, MVP director, said trials could start next year.
"Clinical trials for the new vaccine could start as early as 2004 and the new vaccine could be ready for wide use in sub-Saharan Africa within the next four to five years," he said.
"Our goal is to eliminate epidemic meningitis as a public health problem in sub-Saharan Africa, thereby alleviating the social, human and economic disasters these epidemics cost."
The Meningitis Research Foundation welcomed the announcement.
A spokeswoman said: "If they can produce a conjugate vaccine for a dollar a dose this will go a long way towards saving lives and preventing a massive number of deaths.
"It will give people in the developing world protection against what is potentially a fatal disease."
Meningitis is one of the world's most dreaded infectious diseases. Even with antibiotic treatment, at least 10% of patients die with another 10 to 20% left with permanent problems, such as mental retardation, deafness or epilepsy.
The A strain has been responsible for major epidemics along Africa's meningitis belt, which stretches from Ethiopia in the East to Senegal in the West.
Almost 20,000 people died in the last epidemic in 1996. A further 200,000 were infected. Last year, there were 5,531 deaths from meningitis A and at least 44,000 cases.