Africa: New meningitis vaccine welcomed - but will it need to be rationed?

Originally published
Geneva, February 6, 2003 - Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) welcomes the new trivalent (ACW135) meningitis vaccine developed by GlaxoSmithKline. MSF is particularly encouraged to see that the new product was registered so quickly, in only a few months, while last August, companies and regulatory authorities still argued such a quick maneuver wouldn't be feasible.
"This shows that a lot is possible when the will is there. With the new vaccine, we can counter the emergence of the W135 strain of meningitis in Africa," says Dr Bernard Pécoul, Director of the MSF Campaign for Access to Essential Medicines. "Burkina Faso already reports over 1,300 cases since last December, the majority of them W135. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), meningitis has reached epidemic levels in three Burkina Faso districts. If there is an epidemic on a national level, Burkina Faso will need about three million doses of the new vaccine."

If the W135 strain spreads to other countries in the African meningitis belt, the need could be as many as 20-50 million doses in the next five years -- meaning that with only three million doses available, there will be a significant shortfall. MSF is concerned that reliance on one producer in such a situation is unwise. However, Aventis Pasteur, the second global producer of meningitis vaccines, has not taken up the challenge to become part of the solution.

There has also been a striking lack of financial support from wealthy countries in making vaccines available. Apart from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's private funding, only Norway has pledged funds in the international response to meningitis in Africa, estimated by WHO and its partners to require 10 million dollars. "Support from the Gates Foundation is welcome but covering global public health needs is the job of governments," Dr Pécoul said.

GlaxoSmithKline is selling the three million doses at $1.50 a dose, which is too high a price for the African countries affected. MSF is calling for a vaccine at less than a dollar per dose.