More than 12 million people in Burkino Faso will be the first to receive a new meningitis vaccine as part of an Africa-wide immunization plan, the World Health Organisation said on Monday.
The vaccine, called MenAfriVac and made by Serum Institute of India, will be used to inoculate 450 million people throughout the continent by 2015.
It was developed for use against a type of the disease common in Africa and, at just 50 U.S. cents per dose, it is designed to be cheap enough that poorer countries can afford it.
It protects against bacterial meningitis A, a strain of the disease that causes annual epidemics in 25 countries in Africa in which thousands die and many more are permanently disabled.
"The impact of this vaccine will be truly enormous," said Jean-Marie Okwo-Bele, the WHO's director of vaccines, who announced the launch of the MenAfriVac programme at a briefing in London. "This will affect the lives of 450 million people who are at risk of this disease in the African meningitis belt."
The bacterial form, meningococcal meningitis, is a serious infection of the thin lining surrounding the brain and spinal cord. It can cause severe brain damage and is fatal in 50 percent of cases if untreated.
The so-called "meningitis belt" in sub-Saharan Africa, which has the highest rates of the disease in the world, stretches from Senegal in the west to Ethiopia in the east.
Okwo-Bele said about 85 percent of meningitis cases in Africa were caused by meningitis A and the disease hit mainly in the dry season, between January and March.
According to WHO figures, 14 African countries that collected good data in the 2009 season reported a total of 78,416 suspected cases, including 4,053 deaths, the largest number since an epidemic in 1996.
"It's a terrifying disease," Okwo-Bele said as he described places in his homeland of the Democratic Republic of the Congo where seasonal epidemics are common.
"When you're travelling in villages that are affected, you can feel the fear in the population. You can see empty streets because people are so afraid to be in contact with each other."
MenAfriVac has a marketing licence from the Indian government and was given WHO pre-qualification in June, meaning it meets international drug safety standards for use.
Immunization will start in Burkino Faso on Dec. 6 and the programme will be rolled out soon in Mali and Niger. The WHO hopes to complete a $550 million project to vaccinate 450 million people in 25 African countries by 2015.
Therapies called polysaccharide vaccines have been available to prevent bacterial meningitis for more than 30 years, but their effect lasts only for a year and their use has failed to prevent repeated epidemics in Africa.
In Europe and the United States, where most cases of meningitis are caused by meningitis C, Sanofi-Aventis markets a vaccine called Menactra and Switzerland's Novartis markets one called Menveo, both of which protect against several strains, including A, C, Y and W.
Marc LaForce, director of the non-profit PATH meningitis vaccine programme, said the key differences between these shots and MenAfriVac were that the African vaccines targets just meningitis A, and its cost is dramatically lower.
"This one cost 50 U.S. cents, the others cost around $120 dollars, that's the big difference," he told the briefing.
LaForce said the total development costs for the new vaccine were about $50 million dollars and had been met by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Funds to support the vaccination programme were expected to come partly from the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation, which is financed by international donors and partly by the countries themselves.