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WHO approves Indian-made vaccine to fight meningitis in Africa

A vaccine against meningitis prepared by an Indian company has been approved by the World Health Organisation (WHO), paving the way for its use to eradicate the disease in sub-Saharan Africa.

Accra: A vaccine against meningitis prepared by an Indian company has been approved by the World Health Organisation (WHO), paving the way for its use to eradicate the disease in sub-Saharan Africa.

The MenAfriVac vaccine was developed by the Indian company, Serum Institute of India Limited (SIIL), under a project of the global non-profit health organisation PATH and the WHO.

"Developing the MenAfriVac vaccine fits exactly (with) Serum's ingrained philosophy of bringing down prices of vaccines so that under-privileged children of the world are protected," said the Pune- based SIIL's chief executive, Cyrus Poonawalla.

SIIL was contracted by the Meningitis Vaccine Project (MVP) to produce the vaccine, which has finally been approved by the WHO for routine immunisation of infants in sub-Saharan Africa, and has been described by MVP officials as "an innovative and affordable vaccine that has all but rid the meningitis belt (in sub-Saharan Africa) of a major cause of deadly epidemics".

"Initial mass vaccination campaigns with MenAfriVac have been highly effective in reducing the number of meningitis A cases," said the director of MVP, Marie-Pierre Preziosi.

"But epidemics will return when rising numbers of unprotected newborns become a larger proportion of the total population, over time. Now, with this decision, health officials will be able to ensure that population-wide protection is sustained by routinely immunizing infants," Preziosi added.

Created in June 2001 with the goal of eliminating epidemic meningitis as a public health problem in sub-Saharan Africa, MVP was one of the earliest product development partnerships funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

"We are more than halfway through with introducing the vaccine in the meningitis-belt countries, and the first introductions have been a stunning success," said Jean-Marie Okwo-Bele, director of WHO's department of Immunisation, Vaccines and Biologicals.

The WHO decision means that the new, approved dose of the meningitis A vaccine meets international standards of quality, safety, and efficacy and can therefore be administered to children younger than one year of age in Africa.

MenAfriVac had previously been authorised for being administered to children and young adults, between 1-29 years.

Before the introduction of MenAfriVac, people living in countries of the African meningitis belt, which stretches from Senegal in the west to Ethiopia in the east, were regularly struck by meningitis A epidemics, in which a sudden onset of symptoms could rapidly lead to death or permanent disability.

"One of the most devastating outbreaks ever recorded was in 1996-1997, when an epidemic wave infected more than 250,000 people and killed over 25,000 in just a few months. The only existing vaccine was insufficient to break the cycle," the MVP said in a statement.

Meningitis is an acute inflammation of the protective membranes covering the brain and spinal cord, known collectively as the meninges. It may be caused as a result of infection with viruses, bacteria, or other microorganisms, and less commonly by certain drugs.

The disease can be life-threatening because of the inflammation's proximity to the brain and spinal cord.

According to the MVP statement, in 2004, it partnered with SIIL to develop an affordable, tailor-made vaccine for use against meningitis A in sub-Saharan Africa.

MenAfriVac was developed in record time and at less than one-tenth the cost of a typical new vaccine. Since 2010, MenAfriVac has been administered to over 215 million people in 15 countries of the African meningitis belt.

MenAfriVac was the first vaccine developed outside "traditional pharma," and the only vaccine developed specifically for people in Africa.