Meningitis cases occur globally; however, Africa has been hit remarkably hard with this potentially deadly disease. Sub-Saharan Africa, in particular, has been dubbed the ‘meningitis belt’ due to the historically high number of meningitis cases reported in this region. Specifically, the meningitis belt extends from Senegal to Ethiopia, and epidemics here are frequent, severe, and widespread with waves often lasting for two to three years. In the meningitis belt, incidence rates of the disease can be anywhere between 100 and 800 cases per 100,000 people, and rural and remote areas are typically the worst hit due to the lack of available medical care.
The meningitis vaccine has proven somewhat successful in reducing the number of incidents in Africa, but keeping the vaccine cold for a long enough period of time to allow for effective delivery has been a challenge. Traveling to remote areas to administer the vaccine can take days, and limited resources for keeping the meningitis vaccine cold mean it can easily spoil before reaching its final destination. However, there has been a recent breakthrough that could signal a significant advance in combating meningitis in remote regions.
Meningitis Vaccine for Africa
The meningitis A vaccine called MenAfriVac was developed about ten years ago specifically to meet the needs of resource-poor countries, such as those that comprise the meningitis belt in Africa, and it costs less than $0.50 per dose. However, safe and effective vaccine delivery still posed a problem since previous versions of the vaccine had to be kept consistently cold. Now, thanks to more intense research and development, this vaccine can be kept outside of the ‘cold chain’ for up to 4 days. This means the vaccine can be transported longer distances and can withstand temperatures of up to 40 degrees Celsius for a significant period of time, reducing costs associated with refrigeration and giving the vaccine a better chance of reaching residents in even the most remote regions of Africa.
What is Meningitis?
Meningitis is a serious disease caused by a variety of pathogens including viruses, bacteria, and microorganisms. It causes inflammation of the protective membranes that protect the spinal cord and brain, and, left untreated, it can lead to major complications and death.
There are two types of meningococcal vaccines available in the US, and both prevent against four types of meningitis. Meningitis commonly affects young adults, and it is highly recommended that college freshmen living in dormitories receive the vaccine. Indeed, the CDC recommends the meningococcal conjugate vaccine (MCV4) be given to all 11 to 12 year olds with a booster at age 16 for optimal immunity. The CDC also recommends that military recruits and travelers headed to Africa receive this vaccine prior to departure. Additionally, anyone with a damaged or removed spleen, immune system disorder, or who comes in frequent contact with the disease should be vaccinated as well.
Meningitis is a serious, severe disease, causing about 500 deaths annually even in the United States. With further advances in vaccine research and development, however, there is now great potential to decrease the deadly impact of meningitis in the developing world.