Meningitis A Vaccine Will Save Millions Of Lives In Africa

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The Health Protection Agency (HPA) is contributing to the development of a vaccine that will have the potential to eradicate the large-scale outbreaks of group A meningitis that are commonplace in sub-Saharan Africa.

Several hundred million people in a number of African countries, collectively known as the meningitis-belt, are at risk from group A meningitis. The threat is ever present and there are major epidemics every 10 years or so.

Dr. Ray Borrow, who heads the Vaccines Evaluation Unit in the HPA's North West Regional Laboratory, says that the new conjugate vaccine (MenAfriVac) could be as effective against meningitis A infection in Africa as the meningitis group C vaccine has been against that infection in the UK.

"Meningococcal group C disease has virtually been eliminated in the UK since the vaccine against it was introduced in 1999. This new conjugate vaccine for group A meningitis has the potential to be equally effective in a number of African countries that are bedevilled by meningococcal epidemics," Dr. Borrow said.

The new vaccine is at an advanced stage of development and could be in use within 12-18 months. A vaccination programme will be launched in Burkina Faso at the end of next year or early in 2010 and rolled-out across the meningitis-belt over the following five years.

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"The aim is to vaccinate 250 million people between the ages of one and 29 years by the end of 2015," Dr. Borrow said.

"It's an ambitious programme, but we have high hopes for the new conjugate vaccine. It will have the advantage of providing long-term protection to both adults and children with the additional benefit of inducing herd immunity in non-vaccinated people who live in close proximity to those who have been vaccinated."

Endorsing the Agency's contribution to the Project, HPA chairman Sir William Stewart said: "This is a desperately needed programme that will save millions of lives in some of the poorest countries in the world. I'm proud that the HPA is contributing to it. This is health protection in its truest sense and the benefits will be overwhelmingly apparent in years to come."

Justin McCracken, the Agency's Chief Executive, commented: "The work of the team at our Centre for Infections in Colindale is perhaps understandably what tends to come to mind when people think of HPA laboratory services, but it should not be overlooked that we also have world class expertise in our regions.

"Ray Borrow's team at our Regional Laboratory in Manchester evaluated the meningococcal group C vaccine that has been so effective since its introduction in 1999; they are currently working with Novartis and other partners on the development of a meningococcal B vaccine that should be available in the UK in three to four years time; and they are making a major contribution to the development of this new conjugate meningococcal A vaccine that will hopefully save millions of lives in Africa.

"This is what the Agency is about - research, development, evaluation and implementation to the great benefit of communities in this country and around the world."

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