The World Health Organisation has approved giving a ground-breaking meningitis vaccine, which does not have to be stored in fridges or iceboxes, to babies across Africa, experts said this past week.
WHO's thumbs up for MenAfriVac in mass immunisation programmes will boost the campaign against meningitis on the world's poorest continent, the Meningitis Vaccine Project (MVP) said in a statement.
Launched in 2010, the vaccine has been administered to more than 215 million people in the 15 countries of the African meningitis belt – Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Ethiopia, Gambia, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Mali, Niger, Mauritania, Nigeria, Senegal, Sudan and Togo.
MenAfriVac was developed by MVP – a partnership between WHO and Path, a non-profit global health group – and is manufactured by the Serum Institute of India.
Read: Meningitis facts
"Initial mass vaccination campaigns with MenAfriVac have been highly effective in reducing the number of meningitis A cases," said Marie-Pierre Preziosi, the head of MVP.
Until now, however, the vaccine has only been administered in children and young adults between the ages of one and 29, and Preziosi warned unprotected infants could undo the progress being made.
"Epidemics will return when rising numbers of unprotected new-borns become a larger proportion of the total population over time," she said.
Meets international safety standards
WHO's approval means the vaccine meets international safety and quality standards and can be used in children under a year old.
It also paves the way for UN agencies to purchase the vaccine for use in routine immunisation programmes.
"With this decision, health officials will be able to ensure that population-wide protection is sustained by routinely immunising infants," Preziosi said.
One of the most devastating meningitis outbreaks ever recorded in Africa occurred in 1996-1997, when an epidemic infected more than 250,000 people and killed over 25,000 in just a few months.
Read: Meningitis survivors
The only existing vaccine at the time was insufficient to break the cycle.
Death within hours
Meningitis – an inflammation of the lining around the brain and spinal cord – is a potentially fatal disease that can cause death within hours.
It is usually bacterial or viral and occasionally is due to fungal infections, although almost any microbe can cause it.
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Image: Vial with syringe from Shutterstock.