Honorable Ministers, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen,
We are here to celebrate the momentous success of the Meningitis Vaccine Project. Five years after the introduction of an affordable meningococcal meningitis A conjugate vaccine, immunization has led to the control and near elimination of deadly Meningococcal meningitis A epidemics in the African meningitis belt. It is a great pleasure to see so many who contributed to this achievement here today.
When, in 1996, an unprecedented meningococcal meningitis A epidemic (nearly 250,000 cases and 25,000 deaths) swept across countries in West Africa, Ministers of health of the subregion appealed to WHO and partners for help, both to immediately contain the deadly disease, and in the long term, make available an affordable vaccine for preventive use in sub-Saharan Africa, in order to eliminate the recurrent epidemics.
It is important to note that it has been also a significant milestone in WHO’s assistance to African Region Member States, in the control of epidemics in general. It led to the establishment of the West Africa inter country team of epidemiologists, bringing technical support nearer to countries. In the same spirit, Central, East & Southern Africa inter country teams were put in place.
This fight against Meningococcal meningitis A, responsible for 90% of meningitis cases in Africa, is a unique partnership between the World Health Organization and PATH, generously funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
The role of the South south cooperation with the Serum Institute of India Limited and the active involvement of African clinical research sites in the Gambia, Ghana, Mali, and Senegal, brought another dimension to the development of the vaccine.
Today, over 235 million people in 16 countries have been vaccinated, and a larger number are now protected by MenAfriVac, a licensed conjugate vaccine developed in line with the highest international standards. No case of meningococcal A meningitis has been recorded yet in vaccinated populations. Another 10 countries will conduct vaccination campaigns over the next couple of years.
At this juncture let me warmly thank the governments of the West African countries, through the Ministries of Health, GAVI, UNICEF and other Partners for the sustained support to mass immunisation campaigns.
We have made great strides, we have nearly eliminated meningitis A epidemics from Africa, but the job is not completely done. Our dramatic gains against epidemics due to Meningococcal meningitis A will be jeopardized, unless countries maintain a high level of protection and sustained epidemiological surveillance at least at the current level. Catch-up vaccination campaigns and integration of this vaccine into routine childhood immunization schedules are needed, to prevent a resurgence of deadly epidemics.
We now need to urgently make progress in our fight against other strains of meningococcal meningitis, learning from the spectacular success of MenAfriVac. The price of MenAfriVac, at less than 0.50 USD per dose, ensured that this vaccine is a sustainable public health solution.
In the past year, both Niger and Nigeria have suffered outbreaks of meningitis C, meningitis W135 and X. Therefore, we need a high quality, affordable, new multivalent meningitis conjugate vaccine that protects against all the strains of meningitis with outbreak potential, and that also offers long-lasting protection to individuals and confers herd protection to populations. I am committed to continue working with all the partners until we reach that goal.
As we are gathered here today, to document the extra-ordinary experience that led to MenAfriVac and its tangible public health impact, we are justly proud. We congratulate all those who have been part of this journey and with their foresight and determination, actively contributed to the Meningitis Vaccine Projects. Many have not been able to join us today. Allow me to say a special thank you to Dr Marc Laforce for his devotion from the beginning, in the mid-90s, till the end to this dream that is now virtually a reality: We have nearly eliminated Meningococcal meningitis A epidemics from Africa.