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New meningitis vaccine could stop outbreaks

LONDON - Health officials say a new meningitis vaccine will help prevent epidemics in Africa for the first time, revolutionizing how doctors fight outbreaks of the deadly disease.

Meningitis, a potentially fatal infection of the lining that surrounds the brain and spinal cord, strikes more than 20 countries in sub-Saharan Africa from Senegal to Ethiopia. Last year, there were about 80,000 cases, including more than 4,000 deaths.

While rich countries have used meningitis vaccines for years, those available in the developing world cannot be used to prevent outbreaks because they don't last very long. They also cannot be used in children under 2, those most vulnerable.

Until now, health officials have immunized people only in an emergency situation once an outbreak starts.

Last week, the World Health Organization approved a new vaccine that could stop outbreaks before they even begin.

"This is pretty close to a revolution in terms of controlling meningitis," Daniel Berman of the Access for Essential Medicines campaign of Médecins Sans Frontières, told The Associated Press yesterday.

The new vaccine is the result of a partnership that began in 2001 among the World Health Organization, the Serum Institute of India, and PATH, an international nonprofit funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The vaccine targets type A meningitis, which causes more than 90 percent of outbreaks in Africa. Last week, WHO verified that the vaccine meets its quality-control requirements, meaning other agencies like UNICEF can buy it now for countries. It costs about 40 cents a shot.

Health officials are planning to roll out the vaccine in three of the countries most heavily affected by meningitis: Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger. Berman estimated they still need about $11 million, and another $475 million to get the vaccine to the other 22 countries that need it most.

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