Dr. Besser's Notebook: New Meningitis Shot Protects Hearing in Africa's Children

Against the odds, organizations strive to save African children from meningitis.

March 7, 2011, 10:48 PM

March 8, 2011— -- One day, Florence plans to turn on the lights.

Her family home in Burkina Faso has no electricity but she aims to change that.

It won't be easy, but she wants to be an electrician -- and I would bet anyone that she will reach her goal.

She is 22 and deaf, a result of meningococcal meningitis which stole her hearing when she was just 6 years old.

In this part of the world, her story is all too common.

Burkina Faso lies in West Africa in the heart of the meningitis belt. For some unknown reason, epidemics of type A meningococcal meningitis sweep through this region on a regular basis during the dry season, killing tens of thousands of people and leaving even more damaged.

A fever during the dry season, January through April, has long struck fear in parents -- until now.

In December, the government of Burkina Faso started vaccinating all those between the ages of 1 and 29 against this disease using a vaccine made just for Africa.

This is a really big deal.

For the first time, a vaccine was made for a disease only found in Africa.

While meningococcal disease affects people around the globe, epidemic type A disease only occurs here.

Big Pharma had no interest in developing a vaccine -- no business case for a vaccine whose target would only be the poorest people in the world.

So the global community came together. More than a dozen organizations, including WHO, PATH, the FDA, and the Serum Institute of India agreed that this was the right thing to do.

When I was at the CDC, I served for a couple years as the chief of the meningitis branch and first became aware of this project.

Our branch had a technical support conducting studies to evaluate the vaccine. I met the project director, Dr. Marc LaForce of PATH at the project headquarters in France back in 2004.

His quixotic dream was to make a vaccine to sell for less than 50 cents a dose.

Noble idea, I thought, but not likely to be achieved. The meningitis vaccine in use in the U.S. costs more than $100 per dose; how could you ever make a vaccine for just pennies?

New Vaccine Means Fewer New Deafness Cases

My trip to Burkina Faso is an acknowledgement that I was wrong. The global effort took 10 years but in the end delivered a miracle.

The MenAfriVac vaccine was launched in December and over a 12-day period, the entire at-risk population was offered vaccine.

This afternoon, I walked through an empty ward in the childrens hospital, the ward reserved for meningitis.

They have only seen one case this year and that was in a young woman who had not been vaccinated.

As a pediatrician, I remember vividly having to tell parents that their children had meningitis, having to tell parents that their children were deaf.

Here in Burkina Faso, there will now be fewer of those conversations. The fear of the dry season may now start to disappear.

The new vaccine arrived too late for Florence.

Her mother, Rosalee, told me she will do all she can to tell people the importance of being vaccinated.

She knows the horror of this disease first hand. In addition to Florence, her other two children also had meningitis and are deaf.

This afternoon, I sat with them in the courtyard in front of their one-room home.

What struck me about Rosalee and her children was their faith that God had a plan for them and that they were going to make it.

Her son, Xavier, 28, is learning to be a carpenter. Her daughter Diane, 24, weaves cell phone cases from strips of nylon.

And Florence attends a school for the deaf where she is learning to be an electrician.

I ask her why she wants to be an electrician. Her face lights up with the most incredible smile. She tells me using sign language that she has always wanted to be an electrician. One day, she will bring electricity to her home so they can use sign language at night, and her sister and mother can weave after dark.

"I have to study for three more years," she tells me. And when she says it, I can picture the lights coming on in her home, just as the light has come into so many lives here that no longer need to fear epidemics of meningitis.

Follow Dr. Besser on Twitter: @DrRichardBesser.