Men5CV: The Indian connection behind life-saving meningitis vaccine

The multivalent conjugate vaccine took 13 years for research and development

In sub-Saharan Africa, from Senegal in the west to Ethiopia in the east, and encompassing the northern part of Nigeria, there exists a region known as the African Meningitis Belt (AMB). Here, meningitis, a serious infection of the meninges―the membranes covering the brain and spinal cord―is hyper-endemic. The incidence of meningitis varies globally, with the highest rates found in the AMB. The region is particularly susceptible to meningococcal meningitis due to its high temperature, geographical proximity to the desert, and the influence of the dry season on air particulate concentration. 
Historically, major epidemics have occurred in the AMB every 5 to 12 years, with the disease proving fatal in 80 per cent of cases if untreated.

Meningitis can be caused by various pathogens, including bacteria, fungi and viruses. Bacterial meningitis―caused by streptococcus pneumoniae, haemophilus influenzae and neisseria meningitidis―is the most common form leading to outbreaks. Experts warn that bacterial meningitis can result in blood poisoning, and can seriously disable or kill those infected within 24 hours. Last year saw a 50 per cent increase in meningitis cases across Africa.

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Nigeria is one of the 26 hyper-endemic countries within the AMB. Between October 1, 2023, and March 11, 2024, Nigeria witnessed 153 deaths in seven of its 36 states, with over 1,700 suspected meningitis cases reported during this period. Nigeria now has become the first country in the world to introduce a new vaccine, Men5CV, which protects against five strains of meningococcal bacteria (A, C, W, Y and X), all capable of causing blood poisoning. Previously, vaccines were only effective against the A strain. This new vaccine employs the same technology as the meningitis A conjugate vaccine (MenAfriVac), which successfully eradicated meningococcal A in Nigeria.

Notably, Indian hands and brains had a role in the development of the life-saving vaccine for Africa. The multivalent conjugate vaccine took 13 years, and was made possible with financial support from the UK, as well as through a partnership between the international non-profit global health organisation, PATH, and the Serum Institute of India. Said Adar Poonawalla of Serum Institute of India, “As the first conjugate vaccine to safeguard against the five predominant causes of this deadly disease, Men5CV offers hope for a future free from annual outbreaks and epidemics in the AMB. It is a significant moment as we pave the way towards a healthier Africa, saving countless lives.”