OUAGADOUGOU, BURKINA FASO (AP) - Health workers will use a new vaccine to protect 20 million people in three West African countries against meningitis, a disease that kills thousands each year on the continent and leaves others brain damaged, officials said Monday.
Meningitis, an infection of the lining that surrounds the brain and spinal cord, strikes more than 20 countries in sub-Saharan Africa. A new vaccine developed specifically for use on the continent was approved in June and is now being rolled out in three of the hardest-hit countries: Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger.
Health officials have lauded the massive campaign, saying the vaccine could stop deadly outbreaks in the region before they even begin. In Burkina Faso alone, the World Health Organization said some 10,000 health workers will vaccinate 12 million people by the end of the year.
"This is a success story and it represents the development of a product that has taken 10 years to develop and we have been so excited because we'll be introducing the new vaccine for sub-Saharan Africa," said Dr. Marc Laforce, head of the Meningitis Vaccine Project.
The new meningitis vaccine is much cheaper than ones already available in rich countries: It costs less than 50 cents per unit compared to $10 to $100 for other vaccine doses. It also offers protection that lasts a decade, compared to three years for others.
The new vaccine is the result of a partnership that began in 2001 between the World Health Organization, the Serum Institute of India, and PATH, an international nonprofit funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Last year, there were at least 88,000 cases of meningitis in sub-Saharan Africa including more than 5,000 deaths. The new vaccine targets type A meningitis, which causes more than 90 percent of outbreaks in Africa.
Even when the disease is caught early and treatment is started, up to 10 percent of patients die within two days. Up to 20 percent of survivors have long-term problems such as brain damage and hearing loss.
And a study conducted in Burkina Faso in 2007 showed that an average family affected by a case of meningitis among one of their family members spends about three to four months of their annual income dealing with that case.
"Meningitis is one of the reasons that push people into poverty and if we should eliminate the meningitis epidemics, not only can we eliminate the death and disability, but we can avoid disrupting the health system," PATH CEO Christopher Elias said.
Elias said about $475 million more will be needed to cover the other countries in Africa's "meningitis belt."