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WHO, Partners Launch Urgent Action Against Meningitis Globally

Under the umbrella of WHO, health professionals from across the world have launched a roadmap to bring meningitis under control by 2030.

A coalition of organisations and experts have launched a roadmap in prevention and control of meningitis globally by 2030.

The coalition, which includes the United States Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), Epicentre the Meningitis Research Foundation, PATH, UNICEF, the Gates Foundation, and CoMO, launched a roadmap to defeat meningitis by 2030 at a virtual event, hosted by WHO in Geneva on Tuesday, Sept. 28.

The roadmap, which was initiated by WHO and MSF, 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. 

According to WHO, the roadmap aims to eliminate epidemics of bacterial meningitis, save more than 200,000 lives each year and significantly reduce the disability caused by the disease, reduce deaths by 70 per cent, and the number of cases by half by 2030.

Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General disclosed that meningitis can be deadly and debilitating, noting that it strikes quickly and leads to a devastating outbreak.

“It is time to tackle meningitis globally, we need to globally expand access to tools like vaccines, new research and innovation to prevent, detect and treat the various causes of the disease, and improve rehabilitation for those affected,” Tedros said.

Meningitis is a dangerous inflammation of the membranes that surround the brain and spinal cord caused by bacterial infection that has led to around 250,000 deaths a year, he said. 

“It kills one in 10 of those infected – mostly children and young people – and leaves one in  with five long-lasting disabilities, such as seizures, hearing and vision loss, neurological damage, and cognitive impairment.”

The WHO official said over the last ten years, meningitis epidemics have occurred in all regions of the world, though mostly common 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 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 shifts away from firefighting outbreaks to strategic response. This roadmap will help protect the health and lives of hundreds of thousands of families who every year fear this disease.”

Several vaccines protect against meningitis, including meningococcal, Haemophilus influenzae type B and pneumococcal vaccines, however, not all communities have access to 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 is urgent need for innovation, funding, and research to develop more meningitis-preventive vaccines.

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 “We celebrate together the common goal of defeating meningitis and will be led by their inspiration to make it happen.”

Nikolaj Gilbert, President and CEO of PATH disclosed that progress against meningitis has been delayed for too long but “with global actions, we can overcome the disease.”

Dr Aboubacar Kampo, Director of Health Programmes at UNICEF said many children are succumbing to this and other preventable diseases despite facilitating delivery of life-saving meningitis vaccines – and it only gets worse as a result of the pandemic. 

“We need to strengthen primary health care and get routine immunisation back on track, before more children face adverse health outcomes inflicted by meningitis and other preventable infectious diseases.”

Prof Sir Brian Greenwood, Professor of Clinical Tropical Medicine at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and co-chair of the Task Force explained that meningitis mostly affects poor countries, but acute bacterial meningitis is a global problem with no country being spared.

Prof Robert Heyderman, Head of the Research Department of Infection at University College London said in achieving the Road Map’s goals, a team approach will bring together countries, global policymakers, civil society, funders, researchers, public health specialists, healthcare workers and industry to generate and implement innovative new strategies.

As one of the first tangible outputs from this Roadmap, WHO and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine will be launching a global evidence-based report on Wednesday, Nov. 3 on identifying and preventing deaths due to Group B strep, also known as streptococcal bacteria, the major cause of neonatal and infant meningitis.

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