When a meningitis outbreak occurs in African countries, tens of thousands of people can quickly become ill. The disease kills about one in ten who become infected. Those who survive are often left with debilitating complications that can reduce their quality of life.
What is Meningitis?
Meningitis is an infection of the meninges. The meninges are the tissue layers that protect the brain. The disease is caused by a bacteria that is easily spread through the population. Common symptoms include a high fever, headaches, vomiting and confusion. Those who are infected may also suffer from a stiff neck and sensitivity to light. It can take two to 10 days for the symptoms to develop once someone has become infected.
The vast majority of cases occur in what is known as the meningitis belt. This belt stretches across sub-Saharan Africa from Senegal to Ethiopia. Approximately 80 to 85 percent of the world’s cases are thought to occur here. Epidemics generally occur every seven to 14 years.
How Does Meningitis Spread?
The serogroup-A meningococci bacteria that are responsible for causing the disease can be found in the throat. Those who have these bacteria present but do not become ill from them are considered to be healthy carriers. These carriers transmit the disease through throat secretions. Kissing, coughing on someone or living in close quarters can spread the disease if carriers are present.
The vaccine, known as MenAfriVac, was first launched in December 2010. At a cost of just $0.50 USD for each dose, this vaccine was the first to hit the market and provide promising results while still being more affordable than other vaccines that were already available.
The MenAfriVac vaccine first went to Burkina Faso where everyone between the ages of one and 29 were given a dose. Over just a few weeks, it was estimated that nearly 12 million people received the vaccine. Within six months, there were only four reported cases of meningitis. This particular country often reported 1,000 cases within one week. The individuals who contracted the disease had not been vaccinated. As of June 2015, it is estimated that approximately 220 million people in 16 countries across the meningitis belt have been vaccinated.
Although there are other vaccines available, the MenAfriVac vaccine seems to have certain advantages that make it more successful than other vaccines. For example, this vaccine reduces the ability of individuals to carry the bacteria in the throat, meaning the bacteria does not transmit as easily. It also induces a higher immune response, giving the body the ability to fight off any potential infections before symptoms occur. Those who have been vaccinated are also more likely to be able to protect those who were unable to be vaccinated through herd immunity.
In addition to providing long-term protection, the vaccine is extremely cheap when compared to the other vaccines that are currently available. MenAfriVac costs approximately 0.50 USD per dose while others can cost anywhere from 2.50 USD to 117.00 USD for each dose. The low cost means that more individuals will have access to the vaccine. Even better, the vaccine does not need ice to be effective, allowing those who are in remote locations the ability to safely receive MenAfriVac.
In the areas where mass vaccination occurred, the number of meningitis cases fell to zero as of 2015. However, there are ten other countries that have not yet launched vaccination programs. If these countries do not vaccinate and MenAfriVac does not become a routine childhood vaccination, the epidemics could begin to return within approximately 15 years.
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