Meningitis, a potentially fatal infection of the lining that surrounds the brain and spinal cord, strikes more than 20 countries in sub-Saharan Africa from Senegal to Ethiopia. Last year, there were about 80,000 cases including more than 4,000 deaths.
While rich countries have used meningitis vaccines for years, those available in the developing world cannot be used to prevent outbreaks because they don't last very long. They also cannot be used in children under 2, who are most vulnerable to the disease. Until now, health officials have only immunized people in an emergency situation once an outbreak starts.
Last week, the World Health Organization approved a new vaccine that could stop outbreaks before they even begin.
"This is pretty close to a revolution in terms of controlling meningitis," Daniel Berman, deputy director of Medecin Sans Frontiere's Access for Essential Medicines campaign, told the Associated Press on Wednesday. "With this new vaccine, we will be able to plan ahead to prevent outbreaks."
The new vaccine is the result of a partnership that began in 2001 between the World Health Organization, the Serum Institute of India, and PATH, an international nonprofit funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
The vaccine targets type A meningitis, which causes more than 90 percent of outbreaks in Africa. Last week, WHO verified the vaccine meets its quality-control requirements, meaning other agencies like UNICEF can now buy it for countries. It costs about 40 cents a shot.
Meningitis is highly contagious and spreads through sneezing, coughing or living in cramped conditions.
Symptoms include a stiff neck, high fever, headaches and vomiting. Even when the disease is caught early and treatment is started, up to 10 percent of patients die within 2 days. About 20 percent of survivors have long-term problems like brain damage and hearing loss.
Health officials are planning to roll out the vaccine in three of the countries most heavily affected by meningitis: Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger. Berman estimated they still need about $11 million, and another $475 million to get the vaccine to the other 22 countries that need it most.
"It sounds like a lot, but in terms of value for money and the immediate public health impact, the meningitis vaccine scores pretty well," said Dr. William Perea, a WHO meningitis expert. "We're spending hundreds of millions of dollars trying to stop a petrol leak in the Gulf," he said. "Don't tell me we can't find the money to pay for something that is a real public health breakthrough."
Perea said meningitis outbreaks are hugely disruptive to African health systems, which come to a halt when an epidemic hits. "For those four or five months, health workers have to abandon everything else and just deal with meningitis patients."
Officials hope to vaccinate at least 80 to 90 percent of people in meningitis-hit countries. With that many people immunized, even people who don't get the shot should be protected.
Experts said much more money and resources will be needed to make the vaccine available to everyone who needs it. "No one can predict the exact effect this will have," Perea said, "But when we manage to cover the entire region, meningitis will probably be history," he said.