UN agencies and partners warn of ‘acute shortage’ of meningitis vaccines

A child receives a vaccination against meningitis in E Fasher, North Darfur. Photo: UNAMID/Albert González Farran

A child receives a vaccination against meningitis in E Fasher, North Darfur. Photo: UNAMID/Albert González Farran

West Africa, 28 July 2015 – West Africa is at risk of a large meningitis outbreak unless drug manufacturers increase vaccine production by 5 million doses before the 2016 meningitis season starts in January, the United Nations and leading public health organizations warned today.

“We have had preliminary discussions with vaccine manufacturers and impressed upon them the need to produce a stockpile of 5 million doses of vaccine so as to be ready for flare-ups of the disease next year in Africa, but so far they haven’t yet revised their production plans to meet demand,” said Dr. Imran Mirza, a health specialist with the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

The World Health Organization (WHO), UNICEF, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) and Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) issued a joint press release warning that “an acute shortage of meningitis C-containing vaccine threatens to severely limit the world’s ability to minimize the number of people affected.”

The four organizations, which make up the International Coordinating Group for Vaccine Provision for Epidemic Meningitis Control, said while substantial progress has been made in recent years in protecting Africa from other main sub-types of meningitis, “much work needs to be done to protect the African meningitis belt from meningitis C outbreaks.”

According to WHO, meningococcal meningitis is a bacterial form of meningitis, a serious infection of the thin lining that surrounds the brain and spinal cord. It can cause severe brain damage and is fatal in 50 per cent of cases if untreated. Several different bacteria can cause meningitis. Geographic distribution and epidemic potential differ according to the sub-types.

Dr. William Perea, WHO’s Coordinator for Control of Epidemic Diseases Unit, said “meningitis tends to hit Africa in cycles. Cases of meningitis C have been rising since 2013, first in Nigeria in 2013 and 2014, and then in Niger in 2015.”

“We have to be ready for a much larger number of cases during the 2016 meningitis season,” Dr. Perea said.

The four organizations stressed that vaccination remains key to preventing meningitis.