A group of Ghanaian scientists — Abraham Hodgson, Abudulai Adams Forgor (deceased), Fred Binka, Patrick Ansah, Nana Akosua Ansah and Abraham Oduro – and the Navrongo Health Research Centre were this week honoured in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, by the World Health Organisation and partners for their sterling contributions to the development of an effective meningitis vaccine.
These Ghanaian scientists specifically led a critical part of the study which looked at the efficacy and safety of the vaccine in Infants (children under 12 months of age) in the Africa region.
A citation to this effect commended the researchers for “their dedication and commitment to the Meningitis Vaccines Project that ensured the control and near elimination of Group A meningococcal meningitis in sub Saharan Africa.” In Ghana for example, the Group A meningococcus reportedly accounted for an estimated 80–85 per cent of all cases of meningitis.
What is Meningitis?
Meningitis is an inflammation of the meninges, the covering of the brain and spinal cord with the following suspected signs and symptoms; fever or headache and any one of the following, neck pains, neck stiffness, convulsions, confusion, bulging anterior fontanelle (for children under one year) or a sudden unexplained death. Health experts advise the general public to avoid overcrowding ( particularly avoid infected persons sneezing, coughing ), drink a lot of water, improve ventilation (opening of windows in your rooms) and report to the nearest health facility if one develops a fever, headache and neck pain per guidelines issued by the Ghana Health Service.
The vaccine and its impact
The development of the vaccine - MenAfriVac® - by the contributions of the team of Ghanaian researchers therefore led to a mass immunisation campaign in 2012 in the three regions of the Northern part of Ghana, a common zone for frequent outbreaks. This has resulted in a rapid decline in the proportion of meningitis cases in the current outbreak in Ghana due to the Group A meningococcal strain of bacteria.
Indeed, as of December 2015, there were 315 cases and 33 deaths from meningitis nationwide. Also, with the recent outbreak, combined data from 10 districts in the Brong Ahafo region and Bole in the Northern region, as of January 2016, point to a total of 169 cases out of which 37 died.
In the words of Dr Franklin Asare Bekoe, the Deputy Director and Head of Surveillance, Ghana Health Service “The occurrence of meningitis outbreaks due to other Neisseria meningitides serogroups as well as other bacteria are rather a new concern. Additionally, outbreaks due to Streptococcus pneumoniae have also become more pronounced and a public health threat which demands effective preparedness and response strategies.”
Effect of the vaccine
The impact of the MenAfriVac® vaccine has been felt beyond the borders of Ghana. A meningitis belt is described in sub Saharan Africa as a group of 26 countries stretching from Senegal in the West to Ethiopia in the East. According to the World Health Organisation, up to 500 people remain at risk with one out of 10 patients dying and others suffering life-long disabilities such as hearing loss, seizures and learning difficulties.
Developed in a record time of less than 10 years, for less than one-tenth the usual cost of developing a vaccine and getting it to the market, it has had an astounding impact in many countries that have used it. According to the World Health Organisation, “Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger introduced the new vaccine in December 2010 and have since witnessed a dramatic decline in meningitis infections. Burkina Faso, for example, had been suffering from repeated meningitis A epidemics for decades. In 2011, after the massive vaccination drive, new meningitis cases fell close to zero.”
Speaking to the impact of MenAfriVac after giving out the meningitis vaccine to over 235 million people, Helen Evans, then interim chief executive officer at GAVI, the Vaccine Alliance said, “There is no point in having a vaccine if you cannot roll it out. This is a story for donors, who increasingly need to know that the money which is going into developing countries is actually having an impact, and this is a very good example of something which has a clear and measurable impact.”
Speaking at the function in Addis Ababa, Dr Moeti of the WHO, advised all countries to maintain a high level of protection, organise catch up vaccination campaigns and integrate this vaccine into routine child immunisation to prevent a resurgence of this disease. These will be in addition to ongoing efforts to develop a “high quality, affordable, multivalent conjugate vaccine that protects against all the strains of meningitis with outbreak potential and that also offers long lasting protection to individuals and confers herd protection to populations,” he added.
The Meningitis Vaccine Project (MVP) was a collaboration of the World Health Organisation (WHO) and PATH—partnered with Serum Institute of India Private Ltd. and public health officials across Africa to develop an affordable, tailor-made vaccine for use against meningitis A in sub-Saharan Africa. It was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Mighty congratulations to these world class Ghanaian scientists and the Navrongo Health Research Centre that have made Ghana so proud.