How Covid-19 derailed meningitis vaccination

WHO Regional Director

Dr Matshidiso Moeti, the World Health Organisation (WHO) Regional Director.

Photo credit: PHOTO/POOL

Africa faces a major risk of outbreaks of meningitis type A because the Covid-19 pandemic delayed MenAfriVac vaccine vaccination campaigns for more than 50 million children in the continent.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the pandemic severely disrupted meningitis prevention and control services, with disease surveillance, laboratory confirmation of cases and outbreak investigations all steeply declining.

Based on reports from countries, WHO found that meningitis control activities were reduced by 50 percent in 2020 compared with 2019, with a slight improvement in 2021.

Historically, meningitis type A was the highest cause of meningitis outbreaks in Africa. In 1996, a meningitis type A outbreak infected more than 250,000 people and killed over 25,000 in just a few months.

In 2010, however, Africa embarked on a journey to defeat meningitis type A when an effective vaccine, MenAfriVac, was developed and deployed.

To counter the effects of Covid-19 pandemic on the gains made against meningitis type A, now the WHO and partners have launched a roadmap aimed at stopping bacterial meningitis outbreaks by 2030, urging countries to implement it rapidly before the start of the meningitis season in January 2023.

The new regional strategy sets out a roadmap for countries to shore up diagnosis, surveillance, care, advocacy and vaccination to eliminate outbreaks, curb deaths by 70 percent and halve infections.

The World Health Organisation estimates that more than Sh108 billion will be required between now and 2030 to implement the plan, which is projected to save more than 140,000 lives every year in the region and significantly reduce disability.

Speaking during a virtual press briefing Dr Matshidiso Moeti (right), who is the WHO Regional Director for Africa, said that although the defeat of meningitis type A is of one of Africa’s biggest success stories in health, the fallout from Covid-19 hampers the drive to eliminate this bacterial infection as a public health threat once and for all.

“This could lead to catastrophic resurgences thus I urge African countries to ramp up implementation of the new WHO regional roadmap now, before the meningitis season begins in January 2023,” he added.

While no meningitis type A case has been reported in Africa during the past five years, outbreaks still occur and are caused by other types of meningococcal bacteria.  In 2019, some 140,552 people in the region died of all types of meningitis, with the region having the highest number of new meningitis cases globally. Africa reports 100 cases of meningitis cases per 100,000 people, the highest incidence in the world.