March 16, 2006

The Seattle-based Meningitis Vaccine Project (MVP), a nonprofit group working with the World Health Organization (WHO), and the Serum Institute of India are collaborating to develop a vaccine against meningitis A that will be tested in Gambia and Mali later this year. The disease, which can cause hearing loss, brain damage and learning disabilities if untreated, has grown particularly virulent in sub-Saharan Africa.

Eric Bertherat, a doctor in the Epidemic and Pandemic Preparedness and Response Unit of the WHO, noted that a successful outcome of the vaccine tests could ultimately lead to total disease prevention; currently available vaccines can only be used after an outbreak of the virus has been identified. "It is a big step forward, as we will be able to do preventative vaccinating, which previously we were unable to do," he said.

The new vaccine could be administered to infants, unlike current vaccines that can only be given to children two years old and over, said the MVP. It could also provide protection for up to 10 years, compared to the three years for existing vaccines.