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WHO and MSF appeal for funds for new meningitis vaccine

BMJ 2003; 327 doi: (Published 02 October 2003) Cite this as: BMJ 2003;327:769
  1. Fiona Fleck
  1. Geneva

    The World Health Organization and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) have launched an urgent appeal for funds to purchase six million doses of a new cut-price vaccine that would prevent a dangerous new strain of meningitis triggering an epidemic across sub-Saharan Africa early next year.

    Every year the disease—which kills at least 10% of those infected and leaves many more with brain damage, learning difficulties, and deafness—sweeps across the “meningitis belt,” a vast region from Ethiopia to Senegal where 350 million people live.

    Last year when the new strain of Neisseria meningitidis, known as W135, broke out in Burkina Faso, infecting more than 13 000 people and killing at least 1500, there was no vaccine.

    WHO said that now a new vaccine had been developed by GlaxoSmithKline Biologicals in cooperation with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation “in record time” and was available at 65p ($1.08; €0.94) a dose so that emergency stockpiles could bought for African countries.

    Similar vaccines have cost four to 50 times as much, but to produce the new vaccine at such a low price a minimum order of six million doses is needed, WHO said.

    “This is an urgent health situation which forces quick action,” said Dr Anarfi Asamoa-Baah, assistant director general in charge of communicable diseases at WHO in Geneva. “But if we can do it, we can ease suffering, save lives, and bring hope to tens of thousands of people who live in the direct path of this disease.”

    In total, £6m ($10m; €9m) is needed to purchase the necessary vaccines, syringes, and other material within the next few days to give manufacturers enough time to produce enough doses before the next wave of meningitis begins.

    So far, only one million doses have been ordered by MSF, and funds to purchase another five million are still urgently needed. Dr Bernard Pecoul, director of MSF's access to medicines campaign, called on governments to help with the funding gap.

    “MSF has decided to buy one million doses of the new vaccine to make sure we can respond to an epidemic that might start early next year,” Dr Pecoul said, adding: “But it's not enough. We often hear that governments say pharmaceutical companies need to do their share in making means available to developing countries to cope with public health needs. Well, today, where are the governments?”

    In December and June, countries in the meningitis belt are subjected to dry, dusty winds and cold nights that can result in an increase in upper respiratory tract infections and an increased risk of meningitis.

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