Rare Burkina Faso strain of meningitis under control

A rare strain of meningitis, which re-emerged recently in Burkina Faso, would have left health authorities helpless just two years ago. Now, thanks to two years of work orchestrated by the World Health Organization (WHO), the strain (known as W135) has been rapidly identified and a mass action campaign is now controlling the outbreak.

"At last, we have the tools to contain small outbreaks like this one before they cripple an entire region," said Dr. Michael J. Ryan, coordinator of WHO's Global Alert and Response unit.

Meningitis sweeps across sub-Saharan Africa every year, sometimes triggering outbreaks involving 100 000 people or more. But mass response plans had been successful in limiting the outbreaks until two years ago when W135 emerged in Africa. Laboratories were hard pressed to identify the new disease, field epidemiologists had no experience tracking it, and no affordable vaccine existed to protect people from it. Because of these deficiencies, the 2002 outbreak in Burkina Faso resulted in 13 000 people becoming infected with W135. 1500 of them died before the outbreak burned itself out.

Following that event, WHO began work organizing partnerships to build a "mass intervention delivery system" in the region which would combat W135. Laboratory workers and field epidemiologists were trained and supplied with materials so that W135 could be rapidly detected, tracked and confirmed. Regional monitoring was established at WHO's Subregional Multidisease Center in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. At the same time, pharmaceutical partner GlaxoSmithKline developed a new vaccine which was tested and approved in record time. Following negotiations with WHO, the company priced the vaccine affordably, at one Euro a dose.

To purchase an emergency stockpile of the vaccine, WHO issued an urgent appeal last September. The reaction was rapid. Funds came in from the governments of Ireland, Italy, Monaco and the United Kingdom, and from Médecins Sans Frontières, the Norwegian Red Cross, UNICEF, and private individuals. The goal was reached, and the first doses will be taken from the stockpile and used in Burkina Faso in the next few days.

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