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UNICEF and partners mobilise to counter meningitis outbreaks


UNICEF, WHO and the GAVI Alliance agree to US$ 55 million to fund vaccines and save lives

NEW YORK/GENEVA - In an effort to save lives and contain the spread of meningitis, the GAVI Alliance has agreed to fast-track a US$55 million contribution to UNICEF and WHO to establish a stockpile of meningococcal vaccines and pay for reactive campaigns in the highly endemic African “meningitis belt” countries.

400 million people live at risk of the deadly meningococcal disease and the contribution will fund 45 million doses of vaccines through 2013 to support emergency outbreak responses in the most vulnerable countries. The stockpile will be supplied with polysaccharide meningococcal vaccines, until a forthcoming conjugate vaccine becomes available.

The highest burden of meningococcal disease occurs in a swathe of sub-Saharan Africa known as the “meningitis belt”, which stretches from Senegal in the west to Ethiopia in the east and where epidemics occur every year. During the dry season, between January and June, many factors, including social and climate habits, increase the risk of meningitis. Each year, the disease takes a heavy economic and human toll. In major epidemics, attack rates range from 100 to 800 per 100,000 population, but individual communities have reported rates as high as 1,000 per 100,000. Between 1997 and 2007, 59 600 deaths due to meningitis were reported in the region. So far in 2009 the meningitis season has seen particularly high attack rates in Niger and northern Nigeria.

Meningococcal meningitis is a bacterial infection of the fluid surrounding the brain and spinal cord. The disease develops quickly, is highly contagious, and kills about 1 in 10 people who get it. Between 5 and 10 per cent of patients die within 24-48 hours after the first symptoms, even with quick diagnosis and therapy. Up to a quarter of survivors suffer permanent damage—most commonly hearing loss, mental retardation, or epilepsy.

Because of a global shortage of meningococcal vaccine, a special mechanism was established in 1997 to ensure that the population most in need would receive the life-saving vaccine in a timely manner. This mechanism includes the careful review of country requests for vaccines for outbreak response by the International Coordination Group (ICG) for meningitis, which includes the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, Médecins Sans Frontières, UNICEF and WHO.

Mass vaccination campaigns are most effective when there is community awareness of the campaign and social mobilization is in place to ensure optimum coverage. The efforts of thousands of community-based volunteers, including those of the Red Cross and Red Crescent national societies and others in the meningitis belt countries, are critical to these efforts.

The polysaccharide vaccine is currently the only meningococcal vaccine available to combat the recurring epidemics in developing countries, 99 per cent of which are caused by serotype A.

Routine immunisation is not possible with the currently available polysaccharide vaccine as it provides protection for only two to three years and is not very effective in children under two years of age because they lack the ability to develop antibodies. A conjugate vaccine conferring long-term protection is expected to be available later this year in developing countries.


UNICEF is on the ground in over 150 countries and territories to help children survive and thrive, from early childhood through adolescence. The world’s largest provider of vaccines for developing countries, UNICEF supports child health and nutrition, good water and sanitation, quality basic education for all boys and girls, and the protection of children from violence, exploitation, and AIDS. UNICEF is funded entirely by the voluntary contributions of individuals, businesses, foundations and governments.


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