Scientists have developed a new vaccine, which promises to give its receivers protection against the meningococcal bacterium Neisseria meningitidis.
MenAfriVac is the first affordable and effective weapon against killer meningococcal meningitis A rolled out in Africa.
It is the culmination of ten years' work by an international consortium to develop a vaccine at a price low enough for massive use in Africa at just 0.40 dollars a dose.
"MenAfriVac is a fantastic initiative. For the first time, we may be able to prevent these huge epidemics," Nature magazine quoted Andrew Riordan, a meningitis expert at Alder Hey Children's NHS Foundation Trust, in Liverpool, UK, as saying.
The Meningitis Vaccine Project (MVP), led by the World Health Organization (WHO) and PATH, a non-profit body based in Seattle, Washington, was born in 2001 after a particularly bad epidemic in 1996-97 caused 250,000 cases and 25,000 deaths.
According to Marc LaForce, director of the MVP, commercial manufacturers in developed countries could not produce the vaccine at such a low target price,
So the consortium did the research itself, and contracted the Serum Institute of India in Pune to make the vaccine.
The entire research and development cost of the project was just 70 million dollars, which is five to ten times less than typical vaccines.
Meningitis A epidemics cause fewer cases and deaths in Africa than AIDS or malaria, but this masks its huge social and economic toll in those countries.
"When the epidemic arrives, the entire community shuts down," LaForce stated.
The only weapon against meningitis A in Africa was a polysaccharide vaccine that offered protection for a very short time, but now, MenAfriVac is a longer-lasting conjugate vaccine, in which an antigen is coupled to a protein to provoke a stronger immune response.
LaForce says that clinical-trial subjects who received the vaccine more than three years ago are still protected, and that it is also approved for children aged one year and over.
Trials are also under way for children as young as one month, with results expected next year.
MenAfriVac has the added advantage of stopping people from becoming carriers that spread the disease, protecting unvaccinated people through "herd immunity".
Ultimately, public-health officials would like to deploy several conjugate vaccines that protect against not just meningococcal type A but also the other subgroups in the region that can cause smaller meningitis epidemics.
For now, researchers are satisfied that an affordable meningitis vaccine will at last be available in Africa.