Thought Leadership

Leading the Charge: Nigeria’s Milestone in Meningitis Vaccination.

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Tzar Oluigbo and Sunday Oko (Lead Writers)

Vaccines are by far one of the greatest inventions known to mankind, making it possible to eradicate diseases such as smallpox and prevent other potentially deadly diseases like malaria and polio. Through global immunisation efforts, an estimated 154 million lives — or the equivalent of 6 lives every minute of every year over the past 50 years — majority of which were infants have been saved. To provide a complete picture — in many countries, infants now have a significantly higher chance of reaching their first birthdays in good health.

However, this is not the case for many children living in countries such as Nigeria. According to the Status of Immunisation Coverage in Africa Report, Nigeria is currently among the top 10 countries with the highest number of zero-dose children. The country alone accounts for 30.5% of the 80.3% that contributed to the total zero-dose children between 2019–2022.

Image credit: Nigeria Health Watch

One of the obvious reasons for these statistics is the low vaccine coverage, with the COVID-19 pandemic playing a large role. So far, the federal government of Nigeria developed multiple strategies to improve immunisation coverage across the country and ensure that more children have access to life-saving vaccines. Another key strategy used by the federal government in its immunisation efforts is the introduction of new vaccines to widen disease protection. In the last decade, in addition to providing its longstanding routine immunisation programme with vaccines like BCG, OPV, DPT, four new vaccines — pneumococcal, Hib, HPV and Men5CV — have been introduced in Nigeria.

The first in the world
Nigeria became the first country to roll out the Men5CV vaccine, marking a historic milestone. The new five-in-one vaccine targeted at one million people is designed to protect against five strains of the meningococcus bacteria.

The Men5CV vaccine is going to be a game changer in the meningitis equation because, unlike previous meningitis vaccines introduced, the Men5CV gives wider protection. Existing vaccines administered in Africa are only effective against strain A, however, the Men5CV protects against the major strains A, C, W, Y and X of meningococcal bacteria in a single shot.

In 2017, Nigeria experienced a surge in suspected cases of meningitis, with a total of 1,407 reported cases and 211 deaths. This alarming outbreak spread across 40 local government areas (LGAs) in five states. The states most affected by the outbreak were Zamfara, Katsina, and Sokoto, which collectively accounted for 89% of reported cases.

Image credit: Nigeria Health Watch

“Northern Nigeria, particularly the states of Jigawa, Bauchi and Yobe were badly hit by the deadly outbreak of meningitis, and this vaccine provides health workers with a new tool to both stop this outbreak but also put the country on a path to elimination,” -Prof. Muhammad Ali Pate Coordinating Minister of Health and Social Welfare.

The introduction of Men5CV is especially important for Nigeria, which is one of Africa’s 26 hyper-endemic countries which recently experienced an outbreak leading to 1,742 suspected cases.

Image credit: Nigeria Health Watch

Lessons for the continent
The meningitis belt of Sub-Saharan Africa extends from Senegal to Ethiopia. This region is prone to major epidemics of meningococcal meningitis. Between 2000 and 2018, seven possible outbreaks of pneumococcal meningitis were discovered in Africa.

Nigeria’s experience holds valuable lessons for other African countries battling meningitis outbreaks. First and foremost, there must be strong political will and commitment. Nigeria’s government demonstrated a clear commitment to prioritising expanded immunisation and public health, which set the stage for success. During the launch of the vaccine, the Honourable Coordinating Minister of Health also highlighted the support of community leaders which was key to the success of the campaign.

As this year’s World Immunisation Week comes to an end, it is crucial to highlight the ongoing efforts by the Nigerian government to combat vaccine-preventable diseases in Nigeria.

The rapid deployment of the new Men5CV meningitis vaccine highlights the power of outbreak preparedness, collaborative research, strategic partnerships, and a steadfast commitment to eliminating this deadly disease. This pioneering effort can serve as a model for other countries seeking to protect their populations from the threat of meningitis.

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