WHO and partners call for urgent action on meningitis

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Geneva, 28 September 2021 (PAHO/WHO) - Today, the World Health Organization (WHO) and partners launched the first ever global strategy to defeat meningitis - a debilitating disease that kills hundreds of thousands of people each year.

By 2030, the goals are to eliminate epidemics of bacterial meningitis – the most deadly form of the disease – and to reduce deaths by 70% and halve the number of cases. The organizations estimate that in total, the strategy could save more than 200,000 lives annually and significantly reduce disability caused by the disease.

This strategy, the Global Roadmap to Defeat Meningitis by 2030, was launched by a broad coalition of partners involved in meningitis prevention and control at a virtual event, hosted by WHO in Geneva. Its focus is on preventing infections and improving care and diagnosis for those affected.

“Wherever it occurs, meningitis can be deadly and debilitating; it strikes quickly, has serious health, economic and social consequences, and causes devastating outbreaks,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General. “It is time to tackle meningitis globally once and for all –by urgently expanding access to existing tools like vaccines, spearheading new research and innovation to prevent, detecting and treating the various causes of the disease, and improving rehabilitation for those affected.”

Meningitis is a dangerous inflammation of the membranes that surround the brain and spinal cord, predominantly caused by infection with bacteria and viruses.

Meningitis that is caused by bacterial infection tends to be the most serious – leading to around 250,000 deaths a year - and can cause fast-spreading epidemics. It kills 1 in 10 of those infected – mostly children and young people - and leaves 1 in 5 with long-lasting disability, such as seizures, hearing and vision loss, neurological damage, and cognitive impairment.

Over the last ten years, meningitis epidemics have occurred in all regions of the world, though most commonly 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.

Several vaccines protect against meningitis, including meningococcal, Haemophilus influenzae type b and pneumococcal vaccines. However, not all communities have access to these lifesaving vaccines, 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 remains an urgent need for innovation, funding and research to develop more meningitis-preventive vaccines. Efforts are also needed to strengthen early diagnosis, treatment and rehabilitation for all those who need it after contracting the disease.

Meningitis in the Americas

Infants are the most susceptible to meningococcal disease, with a peak at between 3 and 5 months of age. However, the burden of this disease is still unknown in much of the Americas. To address this knowledge gap, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) conducts sentinel surveillance of bacterial meningitis among children under 5 years of age through a regional network.

All countries in the region have introduced Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib) vaccine into their regular programs and 37 have introduced pneumococcal conjugate vaccine for children, two important etiologic agents of bacterial meningitis.

The death rate from meningococcal meningitis is high in many Latin American countries, but the disease is vaccine-preventable and can also be treated if antibiotics are administered in a timely manner.

Global Roadmap to Defeat Meningitis

The new Roadmap details the following priorities for meningitis response and prevention:

  • Achievement of high immunization coverage, development of new affordable vaccines, and improved prevention strategies and outbreak response;
  • Speedy diagnosis and optimal treatment for patients;
  • Good data to guide prevention and control efforts;
  • Care and support for those affected, focusing on early recognition and improved access to care and support for after-effects, and
  • Advocacy and engagement, to ensure high awareness of meningitis, accountability for national plans, and affirmation of the right to prevention, care and after-care services.

The Roadmap 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.

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 November 3rd about identifying and preventing deaths due to Group B strep, also known as streptococcal bacteria, the major cause of neonatal and infant meningitis.