WHO launches effort to fight bacterial meningitis in Africa

HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) — The World Health Organization announced Thursday that it is launching a $1.5 billion campaign, which it hopes will include a new vaccine, to eliminate cases of bacterial meningitis across Africa by 2030.

Meningitis vaccinations for more than 50 million children in Africa have been delayed amid the COVID-19 pandemic, sparking fears of a resurgence of the deadly disease.

In “a race against time”, WHO regional director for Africa Matshidiso Moeti said “a next-generation vaccine” against meningitis will be rolled out in 26 African countries worst hit by the disease.

He said the WHO hopes to approve the vaccine by the first quarter of 2023, which would then allow donors to buy it for Africa.

Moeti said the vaccine “has been shown in clinical trials to be safe and effective against multiple forms of meningitis.”

The vaccine could be released next year and given in widespread action by 2030, when the WHO hopes to have halted bacterial meningitis epidemics on the continent of 54 countries and 1.3 billion people, he said.

The WHO has estimated that the plan could save more than 140,000 people each year — but that depends on the availability of the plunger and on health workers being able to administer it.

Although there have been no new cases of meningitis A in the past five years on the continent due to a robust vaccination program, the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting restrictions have left “hundreds of millions” of Africans at risk, Moeti said. .

Meningitis had “kind of fallen off the radar” but could now take a “huge toll on our countries, with COVID-19 threatening some of the extensive gains that were made in the past,” he said during a weekly briefing.

WHO says its reports show that meningitis control activities fell by 50% in 2020 compared to 2019 before the COVID-19 outbreak in Africa, although a “slight improvement” was recorded in 2021.

Children are most at risk according to WHO figures which show about half of meningitis cases and deaths occur in children under 5 years of age.

More than 350 million people in 24 high-risk African countries received the vaccine since 2010, until the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic slowed progress.

Meningitis is a serious infection of the membranes that protect the brain and spinal cord, according to the WHO. It is caused by “many different pathogens” that include fungi, viruses and bacteria. Bacterial meningitis is the deadliest, according to the WHO.

Carriers can spread the disease through respiratory or throat fluids through close and prolonged contact such as kissing, sneezing or coughing, or by living near an infected person.

Meningitis has the potential to cause epidemics and can lead to death within 24 hours, with one in five patients left with a lifelong disability after infection, according to the WHO.

Symptoms include headache, stiff neck, sudden onset of fever, nausea or vomiting, feeling sleepy or confused, or developing a sudden aversion to bright light, according to the WHO.

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