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The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Announces Grant for the Elimination of Epidemic Meningitis in Sub-Saharan Africa

Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
Evan Simpson
Program for Appropriate Technology in Health (PATH)
Phone: 206.285.3500
Mahenau Agha
Vaccines and Biological, World Health Organization (WHO)
Phone: 41.22.791.2232

WASHINGTON -- The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced today a global health grant of $70 million in support of a partnership between Seattle-based Program for Appropriate Technology in Health (PATH) and the World Health Organization (WHO) to eliminate meningitis epidemics in sub-Saharan Africa. The newly created Meningitis Vaccine Project is a ten-year partnership effort to develop and introduce a serogroup A meningococcal conjugate vaccine in Africa.

This vaccine is expected to provide immunity in infants, elicit longer duration of protection and interrupt transmission for prevention of epidemics. Development and introduction of this conjugate vaccine entails the establishment of a partnership with the private sector and many other groups such as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as the leading technical partner.

Between 1988 and 1997, 704,000 cases of meningitis and 100,000 deaths were reported in the so-called "African meningitis belt," which stretches from Ethiopia in East Africa to The Gambia in the west. The largest recorded epidemic, with more than 200,000 cases and 20,000 deaths reported, occurred in 1996. These reports typically substantially underestimate the actual burden of the disease. During epidemics, routine reporting systems break down, many patients die before reaching a health center, and the cause of death goes unrecorded.

"We are pleased that PATH and WHO seized a tremendous opportunity to build on existing science to develop a new vaccine that will help save hundreds of thousands of lives," said Dr. Gordon Perkin, Director, Global Health Program at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. "This strategic and cooperative effort could mean the end of meningitis epidemics in Africa in our lifetime."

"This is a disease that, during epidemics, fills hospitals, creates significant social disruption, strains limited resources, and kills large numbers of people, mostly children, in a short period of time," said Yasuhiro Suzuki, executive director, health technologies and pharmaceuticals at WHO. "Finally, through this partnership, we have the necessary resources not just to prevent this disease in a few, but to put an end to these devastating epidemics all together."

Epidemic meningitis attacks a broad age range, with young people at particular risk. Infants less than a year old are most at risk. Infection is characterized by high fever, vomiting, and confusion, which can progress over several hours to death. Despite antibiotic therapy, at least one in 10 with the disease will die, and another 10 percent are left with neurologic disorders and the loss of the use of their limbs through paralysis. Untreated, up to 50 percent of cases result in death.

"Traditionally, market competition drives vaccine creation," said Dr. Chris Elias, president of PATH. "However, in these very poor countries, there isn't a market and subsequently there is little incentive for the private sector to make the investment needed to develop such a vaccine. This grant will provide the incentive that has been missing and may ultimately become a model for other vaccines or drugs tailor-made for the poorest countries."

Over the next ten years the Meningitis Vaccine Project will involve many partners, both private and public, working to:
  • Develop a meningococcal conjugate vaccine
  • Create a pathway for the licensure of the vaccine which will be used largely in Africa
  • Assure production in sufficient volume to meet projected needs
  • Monitor throughout to assure the effectiveness and safety of the intervention
  • Finance the procurement of the vaccine through existing or new global programs
  • Introduce the vaccine through mass and routine immunization programs in synergy with other public health programs such as measles control initiatives

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