Meningitis vaccine provides hope to people in Ghana

November 2012

The teenage girls queuing up inside the Girls Senior High School in Tamale, the capital of the Northern Region of Ghana, fan away the hot air with their vaccination cards. Today’s immunization campaign is a welcome break from their school routine and the girls are the first in their country to receive the long-awaited meningitis A shots. Ghana is embarking on a programme to inoculate nearly 3 million people with a groundbreaking vaccine, MenAfriVac®, that has already significantly reduced the number of meningitis cases in other African countries.

Meningitis: serious and potentially fatal

A young boy is vaccinated in the market, Lawra District, Uppern Western Region, Ghana.
WHO/H. Dadjo

Meningitis is a serious and potentially fatal disease caused by bacteria, and a cause of widespread fear in Africa’s so-called meningitis belt – 26 countries stretching from Senegal in the west to Ethiopia in the east. Meningitis A mostly attacks infants, children, and young adults. Up to 500 million people are at risk from this infection that can cause severe brain damage and kills one out of ten patients - even if they receive effective antibiotics. Many suffer life-long disabilities including hearing loss, seizures and learning difficulties. In 2009, the seasonal outbreak of meningitis across a large swathe of sub-Saharan Africa infected at least 88 000 people and led to more than 5 000 deaths.

“In Ghana, the northern regions are particularly hit by meningitis A outbreaks,” explains Dr Idrissa Sow, the WHO representative in Ghana. “Our goal is to reduce the epidemics that regularly ravage these areas through mass immunization campaigns that particularly target people under 30 years old.”

MenAfriVac® vaccine

Poster for the nationwide vaccination campaign against meningitis A in Ghana.
WHO/H. Dadjo

MenAfriVac® is the first vaccine designed specifically for Africa. The aim is to eliminate meningococcal A epidemics in the meningitis belt. The vaccine was developed by the Meningitis Vaccine Project (MVP), a partnership between WHO and the international non-profit organization PATH. Funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and other donors, MVP collaborated closely with affected countries and research institutions around the world. The vaccine was developed in a record time of less than 10 years, for less than one-tenth the usual cost of developing a vaccine and getting it to market.

The vaccine is effective for young children as well as adults, and is manufactured by an Indian company that sells it at less than 50 cents a dose. Elsewhere in the world, meningitis vaccines cost US$ 100 per dose.

The GAVI Alliance has thus far contributed US$ 162 million to the effort to eliminate meningococcal A meningitis in Africa, and has committed to supporting its introduction across the remaining 15 or so nations.

“The vaccine has come at a good time. We are entering the hot season when meningitis cases in this region are known to peak,” says Dasana Abdullah Abdul-Karim, a community volunteer in Kanvilli, a suburb of Tamale. “We have lost so many children in the past because of this deadly disease but now, with this vaccine, we are sure our children will be protected.’’

Dramatic decline in meningitis infections since introduction of vaccine

Teenage girls waiting for their vaccination shot at a school, Ghana.
WHO/H. Dadjo

Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger introduced the new vaccine in December 2010 and have since witnessed a dramatic decline in meningitis infections. Burkina Faso, for example, has been suffering from repeated meningitis A epidemics for decades. In 2011, after the massive vaccination drive, new meningitis cases fell close to zero.

Ghana and six other countries in the region are now following suit. By the end of 2012 more than 100 million people will be vaccinated against meningitis A. It is hoped that, by 2016, all countries in the African meningitis belt will have introduced MenAfriVac®.