Every year from January to May, the dry and dusty desert winds still blow into our country, but the bacteria they carry no longer cause the devastation of a meningitis epidemic.
A disease that once terrified families in the 26 sub-Saharan countries known as the meningitis belt is now under control, thanks to the leadership of the World Health Organization and a bold partnership between the public and private sectors to create a new vaccine.
Bacterial meningitis is a highly infectious disease. It strikes swiftly and can kill within hours. Most people are left with permanent brain damage, hearing loss or learning disabilities. Treating the illness can wipe out three-to-four months of a family’s disposable income.
When the winds brought annual bouts of epidemic meningitis, we would reactively vaccinate, but it was often too late. Every 10-15 years it would reach brutal proportions, as it did in 1996 when the region faced some 250 000 cases and more than 25 000 deaths. In my country, Burkina Faso, we were very much affected with around 40 000 people infected with this frightening disease and more than 4000 deaths.
In the wake of that crisis, several African health leaders asked WHO for help with a preventive vaccine that would target meningitis A, the strain most prevalent in this part of the world. WHO wanted to know what price we could afford, and we said it had to be less than 50 cents per dose.
In 2001, WHO partnered with PATH and secured funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to launch the Meningitis Vaccine Project.
A consortium of academics and scientists developed the vaccine and technology was transferred to the Serum Institute of India, which agreed to manufacture the vaccine at the target price. African scientists contributed to the design of study protocols and conducted the clinical trials. WHO accelerated the process to pre-qualify the vaccine and approve its use.
Less than 10 years later, in December 2010, we set out to reach everyone in Burkina Faso age 1 to 29. Thousands of people, especially children, along with leaders from WHO and its partners, gathered for a celebration in the main square of our capital Ouagadougou to kick off the national campaign with music and speeches. Across the country, people lined up at clinics for hours. We aimed to reach everyone with 10 days, and we succeeded.
The vaccine, developed in record time at one-tenth the cost of a typical new vaccine, was tailor-made for an African need, priced for Africa, and developed with hands-on support from African scientists.
The impact has been significant. The vaccine is now part of our routine immunization program. More than 230 million people in 16 countries in Africa’s meningitis belt have been vaccinated against meningococcal meningitis serogroup A. Given the added impact of herd immunity, the recurring outbreaks have now been virtually eliminated.
The WHO Inter-Country Support Team for West Africa continues to coordinate all meningitis surveillance and response activities in the region. WHO also assists national public health policy-makers with information to help decide on a surveillance strategy that is most appropriate to their needs.
Vaccines are one of the most cost-effective interventions we have in public health. As long as we can reach children with a vaccine, they will be protected for life.
That’s why Burkina Faso gladly joined 193 other nations at the World Health Assembly in 2012 to endorse the Global Vaccine Action Plan, which is the framework for delivering universal access to vaccines as part of the Decade of Vaccines.
More children are being immunized worldwide than ever before, with the highest level of routine coverage in history. In Burkina Faso, we are now able to reach 91 percent of all children with routine immunization. We were among the first countries in Africa to introduce a new vaccine for rotavirus, the cause of a deadly diarrhea, we eliminated polio and we are close to eliminating measles.
We appreciate the broader benefits that a well-performing immunization program brings to overall health care. When systems for vaccine procurement and delivery operate as a fully integrated component of a health system, they can drive the move towards universal health coverage.
There is more work to be done, especially in research and development. Many children are still dying from diseases because vaccines do not exist or they are too expensive.WHO remains committed to making new vaccines more accessible, faster. It is doing this by driving initiatives around an African vaccine regulatory forum and addressing the urgent need to expand clinical trial capacity and strengthen procedures to speed up licensing of new vaccines and technologies.
WHO continues to work through powerful public-private partnerships with international and national health leaders to make immunization more than the biggest success stories of modern medicine, but the greatest success story ever. With the success of the Meningitis Vaccine project, we’re well on our way.