Skip to main content

UN health agency prepares to tackle vaccine-resistant strain of meningitis in Africa

UN health agency prepares to tackle vaccine-resistant strain of meningitis in Africa

Responding to the emergence of a new, vaccine-resistant strain of meningitis in parts of Africa, the United Nations World Health Organization (WHO) today announced plans to convene a top-priority meeting next week in Burkina Faso, where experts will hammer out a strategy to detect and respond to any new outbreak of the disease.

The newly emerging epidemic strain, known as W135, was first detected in Burkina Faso last February, where, in an outbreak that continued through May, it infected more than 12,000 people and killed almost 1,500.

According to WHO, meningitis occurs periodically in epidemics that sweep through the "meningitis belt" of Africa - countries stretching from the West African coast to the Horn of Africa in the east. An existing vaccine is effective against the A and C strains of the bacteria, so far responsible for most meningitis epidemics in the area, but does not protect against W135.

"This disease is a killer of African children," said Dr. David Heymann, Executive Director of Communicable Diseases at WHO, "we have to find a way to get inexpensive, safe and effective vaccines to save young lives from this new strain."

The only currently available vaccine that does protect against W135 is a "tetravalent" meningitis vaccine, which also protects against the other more common strains. WHO officials in the region have said the vaccine is simply too expensive - it is normally sold for at least $5 a dose, compared to 25 cents a dose for the more widely used vaccine.

In Burkina Faso next week, WHO and its partners in the International Coordinating Group on vaccine provision for epidemic meningitis control - which includes the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), Médecins sans Frontières and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies - are expected to agree on the terms of a regional strategy for the African meningitis belt. This will be accompanied by an international appeal for funding to purchase and provide vaccine for the next year and to strengthen the surveillance and laboratory networks, which are vital to the control of this killer disease.