When PATH and the WHO approached Gates for funding their joint Meningitis Vaccine Project over a decade ago, the goal was simple—to put an end to meningitis as a public health problem in sub-Saharan Africa, paying special attention to the “meningitis belt,” which cuts a swath across the middle of Africa from Senegal in the west and Ethiopia to the east. The belt also goes as far north as Eritrea and as far south as Kenya. The at-risk population in this region alone is around 430 million.
Gates gave the project the greenlight back in 2001, along with a 13-year, $87.5 million grant. Nice money if you can get it, right?
The MVP project took an all-inclusive approach toward achieving its meningitis goals, beginning with developing a vaccine that was appropriate for use in Africa; specifically, the vaccine that would help eliminate the meningitis A strain. After that, it moved on to monitoring effectiveness, ensuring adequate vaccine projection, keeping the costs low, and exploring ways in which poor countries could finance the costs of the vaccine and mass routine immunizations.
First on deck was developing a vaccine that was appropriate for use in Africa. A major challenge was developing a vaccine that remained viable without constant refrigeration. With the Gates money in hand, MVP bypassed the huge pharmaceutical companies of the world and tapped the Serum Institute of India, a small generic drug maker. The Serum Institute came through, developing the meningitis vaccine MenAfriVac in 2010, at a cost of around 50 cents per dose.
MenAfriVac was introduced in Burkina Faso in 2010. Since then, it has been administered to over 200 million people across 15 countries. Barely five years later, there hasn’t been a single case of meningitis among vaccinated populations and the meningitis belt has all but disappeared. Although MVP is shutting down, vaccinations will continue into 2016.
Gates continued its support of the project’s egress by awarding the WHO a $580,000 grant back in 2013 to help with transitioning the MVP campaign to routine healthcare systems for countries within Africa’s meningitis belt.
Of course, no Gates-funded project is complete without evaluating its impact. To that end, the reigs have been turned over to the CDC Foundation, which received a $10 million grant from Gates to develop a surveillance network to gauge the impact of MenAfriVac in the meningitis belt.
The Gates Foundation often surprises us with its commitment to neglected diseases like meningitis, typhoid and even syphilis. Since 2001, the foundation has dedicated over $126 million to meningitis alone. That amount is spread over just 10 grants to date, so in typical Gates fashion, only the big organizations like the WHO, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, PATH, and the CDC Foundation counted themselves among that shortlist of grantees.