New tuberculosis test and meningitis vaccine have potential to save African lives

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The last few days have also seen the announcement of two major breakthroughs with regard to the identification and prevention of infectious diseases with major impact in the third world, especially Africa. We refer to a new, low-cost meningitis vaccine being made available in the developing world, and approval of a new and better test for tuberculosis (TB).

TB is among the leading preventable, communicable causes of death worldwide, along with AIDS and malaria. Rapid, early diagnosis would be a major advance. The new TB test is a dramatic improvement on two older tests, the sputum smear test and a skin test. The former is slow and highly unreliable, and the latter merely tests whether a subject has had previous exposure to TB. Since most people in the Third World have been exposed, this information is often of little value. By contrast, the new test, called Xpert MTB/RIF and created by the Cepheid Corporation in collaboration with the Foundation for Innovative and New Diagnostics, takes only about 100 minutes to accurately diagnose patients and provides reliable results for under $17 per test. (This number takes advantage of a discount the company is providing for poorer countries). ACSH's Dr. Elizabeth Whelan says, “This has the potential to revolutionize care.”

ACSH's Dr. Gilbert Ross notes that TB “kills 1.7 million people per year. But if we find out who has it, we can reduce its spread and treat the affected individuals.”

Meanwhile, the Meningitis Vaccine Project said it is beginning a campaign to offer a cheap vaccine for Meningitis A to millions of people in sub-Saharan Africa. While the vaccine does not offer immunity to the less common form of meningitis known as Meningitis B, the immunization plan is still projected to save upwards of 150,000 lives per year by 2015 if fully implemented. However, the backers of the plan acknowledge that they are currently short on funds for full implementation. They take pride though that the vaccine was developed from scratch for just $100 million, and that it will cost just 50 cents per shot to make. Dr. Ross remarks that “there’s nothing like this aimed at the underdeveloped world at this cost.”

Both projects have received funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The tuberculosis discoveries also took advantage of aid from the EU, and the meningitis vaccine made low-cost use of discoveries by the United States government. Dr. Whelan says that these projects are “remarkable examples of collaboration that works.”