Africa’s Meningitis A Vaccine: How Partnership Replaced ‘Big Pharma’
Four years after it was first used in a mass vaccination campaign, the MenAfriVac vaccine has achieved an extraordinary outcome; cases of meningitis A have dropped to almost zero in the epidemic belt across Africa.
But if it hadn’t been for an experimental partnership between the World Health Organization and the not-for-profit health organisation, PATH – working without the involvement of multinational pharmaceutical companies – the vaccine might never even have been developed.
Outbreak season in the so-called meningitis belt across the Sahel starts annually in late December. Every 10 or 15 years, conditions come together to set off a major epidemic. In 1996-7, there were more than 250,000 reported cases; more than 25,000 people died, and many more were left with permanent disabilities.
After that epidemic, African governments came together and demanded that something be done. More specifically they wanted an effective, affordable vaccine that could be rolled out across the region.
The problem: there wasn’t one. The only vaccines available were tailored to the strains common in Europe and North America, not to Meningitis A, which caused the epidemics in West Africa. They were also far too expensive for a mass campaign in the region.
As ever, the problem was money. Meningitis A affected poor people in the poorest regions of some of the poorest countries in the world.
For global health specialists, this is a sadly familiar problem. Mogha Kamal-Yanni, senior health advisor at Oxfam, says the situation is typical. “Clearly the current model of research and development is not working,” she told IRIN. “It’s a broken model, failing public health. It’s not producing what we need, or else it’s unaffordable.”
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