An effective, affordable meningitis vaccine has been successfully tested in Africa, raising hopes for the elimination of a disease that kills 250,000 people a year.
The NmCV-5 vaccine, developed by the Serum Institute of India and global health organisation Path, will protect against the five main meningococcal strains found in Africa, including the emerging X strain, for which there is currently no licensed injection.
Vaccine trials were conducted among 1,800 people aged from two to 29 in Mali and the Gambia in 2021, according to a report published on Wednesday in the New England Journal of Medicine. Researchers found that NmCV-5 generated a strong immune response against all five strains.
Meningitis is caused by bacteria or viral infections that inflame the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord. At least 60% of deaths occur in Africa, particularly along the “meningitis belt”, which stretches from the Gambia and Senegal in the west to Ethiopia in the east.
According to research, people in Africa are twice as likely to suffer serious long-term complications from the disease than people in high-income countries, due, among other factors, to late diagnosis and treatment.
The cost of available vaccines, which protect against four strains of meningitis, are currently too high for most African countries, which need tens of millions of doses. The MenAfriVac, rolled out in 2010, substantially reduced cases of meningococcal A, but large-scale epidemics linked to the other strains are common in Africa.
NmCV-5 will be available in the coming months.
Protection against the X strain is particularly important because it has the potential to spread rapidly and there are currently no vaccines to prevent or control it, say researchers working on the new vaccine from the Medical Research Council Unit the Gambia at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, and the Centre for Vaccine Development in Mali.
Ed Clarke, a co-author of the study, said: “We are excited about the results. We expect NmCV-5 to provide children and young adults with reliable protection against meningitis caused by the meningococcal bacteria in Africa.”
It should be “gamechanging for epidemic meningitis control in the ‘meningitis belt’”, he added. “We look forward to seeing the vaccine rolled out in the region as soon as possible.”
The World Health Organization wants vaccine-preventable meningitis reduced by 50% and deaths by 70% by 2030.
Ama Umesi, also a co-author, said: “Epidemic preparedness is the way forward in providing available, affordable and accessible vaccines relevant to regions prone to meningitis outbreaks.
“Having meningitis vaccines should be a public health priority to prevent catastrophic outcomes during an outbreak, and would be a gamechanger in the fight against meningitis.”