Only months after many thought vaccines had rid Africa from meningitis, a new strain emerges, closing schools, and killing hundreds in Niger. There are seeds of hope, however, in innovations like the test from the Central India Institute of Medical Sciences.
In Niger, the winds from this year’s dry season brought more than sand.
The winds brought a new form of meningitis (meningococcal serogroup C) that has proven quite deadly. This, only months after many thought that new vaccines had rid Africa’s meningitis belt from the disease.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), Niger’s Ministry of Public Health reported 5,855 suspected cases of meningococcal meningitis, including 406 deaths from January 1 through May 10, 2015. The dry season, which seems to bring meningitis outbreaks in this mid-section of Africa every year, tends to taper off by June. However, as we’ve seen with other communicable diseases, it’s not just the bacteria in the sand-filled wind that’s causing transmission of the illness.
Meningitis is also spread by an exchange of respiratory or throat secretions, say living in close quarters with a sneezing infected person, kissing, or sharing a drinking cup.
Each year, thousands of parents see their children die or left with severe disabilities as a result of this devastating disease. Through the combined efforts of many people over two decades, we are closer than ever to seeing an end to this suffering,
said Andrin Oswald, division head of Novartis Vaccines and Diagnostics.
Countrywide vaccination campaigns began in 2010 with the introduction of the first vaccine made specifically for Africa. MenAfriVac® is a revolutionary vaccine significantly reduced the number of meningitis cases caused by serogroup A. In 2008-2009, Nigeria alone saw 56,000 cases. Since 2010, more than 217 million people in 13 countries have received the MenAfriVac vaccine. Five years later, meningitis A is virtually gone. Not a single case of meningitis A was found in among those receiving the vaccination.
The research and development of meningitis vaccines for Africa in the last several years (e.g., 2010, 2013, and 2014) made a significant impact for many African families. However, the emergence of a new outbreak is a reminder that further development and innovation is needed.
The meningitis A conjugate vaccine is the only currently available and affordable vaccine that can be used to prevent meningitis outbreaks in Africa, as it confers long-lasting immunity. All other vaccines used in Africa for other serogroups are the older polysaccharide vaccines, which confer immunity lasting only 3 to 5 years. These vaccines are now used only in the emergency response to outbreaks, and are not suitable for the preferred objective of prevention.
Not all meningitis-related innovations come in the form of vaccines.
For example, a promising new test developed by the Central India Institute of Medical Sciences should reduce the time it takes to get a result from a test for meningitis from 24-48 hours to as little as 10 minutes, which could save thousands of lives once introduced. According to Emmanuel Massar, field coordinator in Niger for Doctor’s without Borders,
Basically, for meningitis we have one antibiotic, which is really, really effective. And so if we see the patient soon enough – you give the proper treatment – and it should be ok. One of the things we are seeing in Niamey is that the patients are arriving really, really late. And sometimes, we really don’t have the time to treat the patients and we lose the patient pretty quickly.
The new test, which has yet to be commercialized according to a story in the Times of India, should be less than half the cost of previous testing when available.
As we saw with the MenAfriVac®, the right vaccine can save thousands of lives. With new tests, inexpensive vaccines, and—as we saw with the Ebola epidemic—targeted education campaigns, perhaps one day the winds will just bring the dry season.
Top photo credit: Valeriya Anufriyeva / Shutterstock.com
The nuviun blog is intended to contribute to discussion and stimulate debate on important issues in global digital health. The views are solely those of the author.