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Nigeria rolls out world's first full shot against meningitis

April 16, 2024

Nigeria has rolled out the world's first vaccine against all strains of meningitis. The shot will help ease the burden of disease in Africa's "meningitis belt."

Child getting meningitis shot
The new vaccine is 13 years in the makingImage: ISSOUF SANOGO/AFP

Nigeria has become the first country in Africa's "meningitis belt" to introduce the new Men5CV or 'MenFive' meningitis vaccine. It is the world's first vaccine to provide protection against all five strains of the meningococcal bacteria that cause meningitis.

Around half of meningitis cases and deaths occur in children under 5 years old, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). 

Since 2010, Africa, which sees the highest burden of meningitis infection in the world, has been fighting outbreaks using the MenAfriVac vaccine. Although it has successfully eradicated about 80% of meningitis infections across the continent, the vaccine only protects against a single strain of the meningococcal bacteria, serogroup A.

That means Africans haven't had protection against the four other strains of the bacteria (C, W, Y and X), all of which cause the disease. Cases of meningitis have continued to rise in meningitis-prone areas, and have been attributed to the C, W, Y, and X strains, but not the A strain. 

Last year, reported meningitis cases jumped 50% across Africa, according to the WHO.

"According to any standards, it's unbearable to keep this disease burden," Marie-Pierre Preziosi, an expert on meningitis at the WHO, told DW.

Between October 2023 and mid-March of this year, Nigeria experienced an outbreak of the C strain, which led to around 1,700 suspected meningitis cases and some 150 deaths across the country, the WHO reports. The vaccine was rolled out to address that epidemic.

Other countries, such as Togo, have seen similar outbreaks in past years. 

Meningitis belt

Africans located in the 26 countries considered part of the continent's meningitis belt are more susceptible than anyone in the world to meningitis. Preziosi said that is because of the area's climate.

At any given time, around 10% of the global population is carrying the bacteria that causes meningitis in the back of their throat or nose. The bacteria normally sits in mucus membranes, which protects against the spread of bacterial infection. Trouble only comes when the membrane is breached, allowing the bacteria to enter the bloodstream.

Preziosi said that when the dry season arrives in Africa's "meningitis belt" — generally between December and June — dry, dusty winds blow from east to west. When inhaled, the material that these winds carry can breach mucus membranes. Many studies have shown that meningitis outbreaks can be clearly tracked to dry season. 

Before the rollout of the MenAfriVac shot, countries in the belt saw major outbreaks of meningitis every five to 12 years, according to Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, an international health organization that will help distribute the shot. During the worst of these outbreaks, up to one-in-100 people were infected. 

Africa's 1996-97 meningitis outbreak, which caused at least 25,000 deaths and 250,000 infections, remains one of the continent's worst. 

Two groups of individuals seated on blankets in the Niger desert
The dusty, dry season is associated with meningitis outbreaks in sub-Saharan AfricaImage: Joerg Boethling/imago images

Meningitis causes serious long-term health issues

Even with early diagnosis and antibiotics, meningitis is deadly in about 10% of cases, and about 20% of those infected experience long-term health issues. 

"For those who survive, one-in-five can develop long-lasting disabilities — that can be neurological disabilities, loss of hearing, deafness, also losing limbs," said Preziosi. "So it's quite dramatic, and it can drive a whole community into poverty."

Meningitis is most commonly spread through droplets from coughing, sneezing or kissing. The incubation period is generally between three and four days.

Initial symptoms are usually non-specific and can look like the flu. If untreated, the carrier can develop high fever, light sensitivity, neck stiffness, bleeding in the skin and, in the worst cases, blood poisoning that can lead to sepsis. Infection leads to the inflammation of membranes surrounding and protecting the brain and spinal cord. 

By protecting people from all five strains of meningitis, experts hope the new Men5CV vaccine will prevent the burden of the disease initially in the African meningitis belt, but eventually in other meningitis-prone regions. 

Children getting vaccinated in Niger
Children are the most vulnerable to life-threatening meningitis infectionsImage: ISSOUF SANOGO/AFP

Men5CV vaccine rollout

The Men5CV vaccine rolled out in Nigeria has been in the works for 13 years,, and uses the same infection fighting mechanism as the MenAfriVac. 

"When you get the vaccine … your body will react by creating antibodies, these are the defense mechanisms to protect from infectious diseases," said Preziosi. "Those antibodies could also generate some specific mucus antibodies at the surface of your nose or throat," she said, which prevent the bacteria from latching on.

At this point, the new Men5CV vaccine will only be used to address outbreaks. The WHO says it hopes countries can begin using it as preventative protection for all children two and older by 2025.

At $3 (€2.80) per shot, this vaccine is slightly more expensive than the MedAfriVac, which is less than $1 (€0.94). But Preziosi says that if there is broad uptake, the price could go down. 

Preziosi hopes the new five-strain vaccine will be as successful in eradicating all strains of meningitis as the A vaccine was in nearly ridding the meningitis belt of that particular type.

Edited by: Fred Schwaller

Clare Roth
Clare Roth Editor and reporter focusing on science and migration