updated 6/7/2007 8:00:30 PM ET 2007-06-08T00:00:30

A new meningitis vaccine promises to end devastating epidemics that have plagued West Africa the last century, according to recent studies.

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The new vaccine protects against meningitis A, the deadliest form of the disease and seen primarily in Africa. It was developed by the Meningitis Vaccine Project, a partnership of the World Health Organization, the Seattle-based non-profit PATH and the Serum Institute of India.

Dr. Norman Noah, a public health expert at London’s School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine who was unconnected to the project, called the preliminary results encouraging.

“If they can get rid of group A meningococcal disease, which has the highest mortality rate and is a fairly unpleasant piece of work, it will be fantastic,” he said.

The new vaccine — unrelated to a relatively new meningitis shot recommended for U.S. children — was recently tested in 600 toddlers in Mali and Gambia. It produced antibody levels nearly 20 times higher than those produced by a vaccine now in use. The only side effects detected were mostly minor, such as some skin and muscle tenderness where the shot was given.

Further study is planned in India this summer, to be followed by vaccination of the 9 million people most at risk in Burkina Faso — those aged 1 to 30 — in 2008. If the trials are successful, authorities then plan to introduce the vaccine across the rest of West Africa.

Meningitis is a bacterial infection of the lining surrounding the brain and spinal cord. Its symptoms include a stiff neck, high fever, headaches and vomiting.

The disease primarily affects children, killing 10 percent of those infected. Even in survivors, it can result in lasting neurological damage and hearing loss.

‘An easy win’
While cases in the West are rare, each year the disease sweeps across Africa’s “meningitis belt” — 21 countries stretching from Senegal to Ethiopia — causing tens of thousands of cases.

Even if the new vaccine becomes available, experts think there will be a lag of about 15 years before the majority of Africa’s at-risk population can be vaccinated. Until then, stocks of the old vaccine will be needed to deal with any outbreak.

African governments and international donors will have to come up with $300 million to protect the 300 million people at risk in West Africa, but health experts hope to be able to redirect the approximately $30 million now spent every year on existing vaccines.

“In the context of global health, this is an easy win for relatively little money,” said Dr. Orin Levine, an associate professor of international health at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health who was not connected to the new vaccine’s development.

“If we have a tool to end epidemics of bacterial meningitis in Africa, we cannot let something as little as a few hundred million dollars get in the way,” he said.

The vaccines now being used in Africa do not provide long-term protection, so they cannot be used preventatively. The new vaccine, which experts think could protect people for a decade, should enable authorities to preemptively vaccinate people to head off outbreaks.

That doesn’t mean meningitis would be entirely eliminated. Other types of meningitis also cause outbreaks, though they have traditionally been less dangerous than type A.

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