The World Health Organisation (WHO) and partners have today launched the first ever global strategy to defeat meningitis, a devastating disease that kills hundreds of thousands of people each year.
According to the WHO and partners, the strategy could save more than 200,000 lives annually and significantly reduce disability caused by the disease.
Dubbed, “the Global Roadmap to Defeat Meningitis by 2030 the strategy focuses on preventing infections and improving care and diagnosis for those affected.
Speaking during a virtual meeting, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General said it is time to tackle meningitis globally once and for all by urgently expanding access to existing tools like vaccines, spearheading new research and innovation to prevent, detecting and treating the various causes of the disease, and improving rehabilitation for those affected.
“Wherever it occurs, meningitis can be deadly and debilitating; it strikes quickly, has serious health, economic and social consequences, and causes devastating outbreaks,” said Dr Tedros.
Over the last ten years, meningitis epidemics have occurred in all regions of the world, though most commonly in the ‘Meningitis Belt,’ which spans 26 countries across Sub-Saharan Africa.
These epidemics are unpredictable, can severely disrupt health systems, and create poverty, generating catastrophic expenditures for households and communities.
Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa said that more than half a billion Africans are at risk of seasonal meningitis outbreaks but the disease has been off the radar for too long.
“This shift away from firefighting outbreaks to strategic response can’t come soon enough. This roadmap will help protect the health and lives of hundreds of thousands of families who every year fear this disease,” she added.
There are several vaccines to protect against meningitis, including meningococcal, Haemophilus influenzae type b and pneumococcal vaccines, however Dr Moeti said not all communities have access to these lifesaving vaccines, and many countries are yet to introduce them into their national programmes.
“While research is underway to develop vaccines for other causes of meningitis, such as Group B Strep bacteria, there remains an urgent need for innovation, funding and research to develop more meningitis-preventive vaccines”, the WHO Director noted.
Efforts are also needed to strengthen early diagnosis, treatment and rehabilitation for all those who need it after contracting the disease.
Nikolaj Gilbert, President and CEO of PATH as one of the global partners said progress against meningitis has lagged for too long but by working together, we can overcome the disease that has cost so many lives in countries around the world.
“PATH is proud to have been a part of the roadmap’s development and is committed to advancing affordable and equitable vaccine solutions to defeat meningitis,” he said.
Another global partner , Director of Health Programmes at UNICEF ,Dr Aboubacar Kampo said there is need to act decisively to strengthen primary health care and get routine immunization back on track, before more children face adverse health outcomes or loss of life inflicted by meningitis and other preventable infectious diseases.
“UNICEF has been supporting governments for decades, facilitating the delivery of life-saving meningitis vaccines. Still, far too many children are succumbing to this and other preventable diseases and the situation is only worsening as a result of the pandemic”, Dr Kampo noted.
Vinny Smith, Chief Executive Officer of the Meningitis Research Foundation and the Confederation of Meningitis Organisations (CoMO), an international membership organisation of patient advocacy groups for meningitis said the world celebrates together the common goal of defeating meningitis and will be led by their inspiration to make it happen.
“This roadmap is the embodiment of the ambition of people and families affected around the world who have called for its creation. It’s their experience and passion that has driven a whole community of interest to get this far,” Smith added.
The new Roadmap details priorities for meningitis response and prevention through achievement of high immunization coverage, development of new affordable vaccines, and improved prevention strategies and outbreak response.
Others are Speedy diagnosis and optimal treatment for patients, Good data to guide prevention and control efforts and also care and support to those affected among others.
WHO and partners are providing support to countries to implement the Roadmap, including through the development of regional and national frameworks that will help countries achieve its ambitious goals.
Meningitis is a dangerous inflammation of the membranes that surround the brain and spinal cord, predominantly caused by infection with bacteria and viruses.
Meningitis that is caused by bacterial infection tends to be the most serious leading to around 250,000 deaths a year and can cause fast-spreading epidemics.
It kills 1 in 10 of those infected mostly children and young people and leaves 1 in 5 with long-lasting disability, such as seizures, hearing and vision loss, neurological damage, and cognitive impairment.
The Roadmap is the result of the first ever resolution on meningitis, passed by the World Health Assembly and endorsed unanimously by WHO member states in 2020.Under the umbrella of WHO , health professionals from across the world strive to bring this condition under control by 2030.