Print version ISSN 0042-9686
Bull World Health Organ vol.82 n.5 Genebra May. 2004
Potential meningitis tragedy averted
A rare strain of meningitis known as W135 which re-emerged recently in Burkina Faso has been rapidly controlled thanks to the joint efforts of a number of international partnerships, and the rapid availability of stocks of a newly developed vaccine, according to WHO's Global Alert and Response unit.
"At last, we have the tools to contain small outbreaks like this one before they cripple an entire region," said Dr Michael J Ryan, coordinator of WHO's Global Alert and Response unit.
WHO has recently vaccinated around 135 000 people against Neisseria meningitidis serogroups W135, A, and C in Nanoro district, Burkina Faso.
The 2002 outbreak of W135 in Burkina Faso resulted in 13 000 people becoming infected, 1500 of whom died before the outbreak burned itself out. This was thought to be largely due to the difficulties faced by laboratories in identifying the disease when it first emerged in Africa two years ago, the lack of experience among field epidemiologists in tracking the disease and the absence of an affordable vaccine.
To address these deficiencies, WHO began galvanizing partnerships to build a "mass intervention delivery system" in the region aimed at combating W135. Laboratory workers and field epidemiologists were trained and supplied with materials so that the strain could be rapidly detected, tracked and confirmed. Regional monitoring was established at WHO's Subregional Multidisease Center in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso.
At the same time, pharmaceutical partner GlaxoSmithKline developed a new vaccine which was rapidly tested and approved. Following negotiations with WHO, the company priced the vaccine affordably, at one euro per dose (around US$ 1.8).
Following an urgent appeal issued in September 2003, WHO established an emergency stockpile of the vaccine with funding from the governments of Ireland, Italy, Monaco, the United Kingdom and from Médecins Sans Frontières, the Norwegian Red Cross, UNICEF and private individuals.
The containment of W135 provides an example of the potential that partnerships have in achieving successful public health interventions.
"Every part of the public health network pulled together to build this system," said Ryan. "Humanitarian organizations, industry, international agencies, lab trainers and private contributors have all worked together, and through their combined efforts an enormous tragedy in Africa may have been averted."