December is usually the official kick off of what’s known as “meningitis season” in parts of Africa. The dry weather creates conditions optimal for the spread of the infection, which attacks the lining of the brain and spinal cord. It’s always painful. Often times debilitating. And in half of all untreated cases, deadly.
Large scale outbreaks of meningitis occur in regular intervals, usually about every 10-15 years. When they do, they strike what is known as the “meningitis belt,” which stretches from Senegal in the West to Ethiopia in the east, and snakes its way through one of the poorest regions in Africa, covering 26 countries in all. Some 450 million people live in its pathway.
The last big outbreak was in 1996-1997. 250,000 people were infected and some 25,000 people died. Even in off years, there are low level meningitis outbreaks. Last year, 1,300 people died from the disease in Africa.
But this year, there will be no meningitis season at all.
It did not make front page headlines, but last month it was announced that cases of meningitis dropped to effectively zero in 2014 across the meningitis belt.
The disease has been effectively wiped out through a combination of technological innovation, political will, and an unusual collaboration between the pharmaceutical industry, NGOs and governments.
In 2010, the NGO PATH, working with the World Health Organization, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and pharmaceutical companies created a partnership to develop a vaccine known as MenAfricVac. Prior to this partnership, the pharmaceutical industry did not have much financial incentive to develop this vaccine because the disease only strikes the poorest regions on the world, and only does so at irregular intervals–so the chances for profit were low.
This partnership helped change the incentive structure for the pharmaceutical industry, so MenAfricVac was born. A coalition of NGOs and generic drug manufacturers were able to get the price point down low enough to enable wide distribution across the Meningitis Belt.
The first mass vaccination campaign occurred in 2011.
Now, just four years later the cases of the disease are near zero, according to a study published in the Clinical Infectious Diseases in November. To be sure, the disease is not gone forever. The same study warns that unless MenAfricaVac is added to routine vaccination programs of endemic countries, we may see a resurgence in 10 to 15 years.
But this collective effort demonstrates that even diseases that affect the poorest people in the poorest regions of the world can be very quickly eliminated, providing, of course, that there’s the will to do so.