Goodbye, Meningitis

Meningitis certainly does not get the same kind of attention as AIDS, TB or Malaria. But it is certainly one of the most frightening diseases out there.  Bacterial Meningitis is highly contagious, killing one in ten people within hours of infection. Many of those who survive are left with some sort of mental or physical disability.

Epidemics periodically sweep across what is known as the “Meningitis Belt” in sub-Saharan Africa. In 2009, a seasonal outbreak killed 5,000 people, and infected 80,000 others.

As of today, though, that might all be in the past.  Starting Monday, Burkina Faso became the first county along the Meningitis Belt to begin a nation-wide vaccination campaign.  The vaccine, called MenAfriVac™, is being billed as the first vacccine developed specifically for an African disease. It’s development and distribution was financed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the humanitarian group PATH,  and other public and private institutions.

This is a big deal not only because it has the potential to eliminate one deadly strain of Meningitis from Africa. But also for the novelty of the model for vaccine development and that it represents. From the New York Times:

“All those things were created because rich people got sick,” [Bill Gates]  said in an interview. “This is the first vaccine that went through the whole process where there was no rich world market, and it had to be optimized at a very low price.”

The meningitis vaccine relies on a technology that was devised by researchers at the Food and Drug Administration and donated by the United States government at the cost of only token royalties. It is being manufactured by the Serum Institute of India, a major vaccine producer, and it was developed independently of the major American and European pharmaceutical companies.

“Doing this outside of big pharma and developing the vaccine explicitly for the developing world is very innovative,” said Dr. William Schaffner, chairman of the department of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt Medical School, who, like Dr. Poland, was not involved in developing the meningitis vaccine. “There’s nothing else like it.”

MenAfriVac™ only costs about 50 cents a dose, and it will cost an estimated $570 million to distribute it across affected regions in Africa.