HEALTH -- December 6, 2010 at 4:17 PM ET
New Meningitis Vaccine Could be Model for Future Drugs
The rollout of a new meningitis vaccine developed specifically with poor countries in mind began Monday in western Africa.
Health officials hope to vaccinate more than 12 million people in Burkina Faso by the end of the year and millions more in Mali and Niger over the next few months.
The three countries are part of the meningitis belt, a strip of sub-Saharan Africa often hit with outbreaks of the disease, which infects the thin lining surrounding the brain and spinal cord.
Meningitis can cause loss of hearing, severe brain damage, or death--more than 5,000 people died of meningococcal meningitis in 14 African countries in 2009.
The new vaccine is the first designed specifically for Africa--it costs less than 50 cents for a dose, and provides a decade of prevention. There are currently other meningitis vaccines used in African countries during meningitis outbreaks, but they cost up to $80 a vaccine and only provide two or three years of protection, according to the World Health Organization.
"We needed a vaccine that is affordable within the context of meningitis belt countries, which are some of the poorest countries in Africa," said Christopher Elias, president of the international nonprofit PATH, which partnered with WHO in 2001 to develop the vaccine.
The new vaccine is also the first that can be used on infants. With financial support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation*, the groups worked independently from the large pharmaceutical companies in the United States and Europe, and ultimately manufactured the vaccine through a company in India, keeping costs lower.
"[Meningitis A], that's the epidemic that strikes Africa and there was no market for the pharma industry to want to introduce a vaccine," said Jean-Marie Okwo-Bele, director of the Immunization, Vaccines and Biologicals Department at the World Health Organization.
This new development model has "tremendous potential," said Elias, and could applied to other diseases in the future that greatly affect the developing world, but may not be attractive from a business perspective. The World Health Organization is currently looking to apply it to a new generation of the polio vaccine, while PATH is working towards new rotavirus and pneumonia vaccines. The process highlighted that having the buy-in from African countries from the beginning was a major advantage.
"These people here know better than anybody how dreadful this disease is," said Okwo-Bele. "It's a vaccine specifically designed for Africans, requested by Africans."
*For the record, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation underwrites the NewsHour's global health coverage.