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How one young man's story inspired a new meningitis vaccine

June 12, 2013 by PATH

Developing a new vaccine against epidemic meningitis in Africa was a challenge. To stay focused, Dr. Marc LaForce remembered a young man he met in Burkina Faso.

Marc LaForce led the development of a new meningitis vaccine for Africa. Photo: PATH/ Gabe Bienczycki.

Marc LaForce led the development of a new meningitis vaccine for Africa. Photo: PATH/ Gabe Bienczycki.

Dr. Marc LaForce, director of the Meningitis Vaccine Project from 2001 to 2012, would eventually lead the successful development, licensure, and introduction of MenAfriVac®, the first vaccine designed specifically for Africa. He received the 2012 Albert B. Sabin Gold Medal award for his pivotal role on the groundbreaking vaccine.

Before this work began, though, Marc met Jean-François. Jean-Francois was a smart, successful 18-year-old from Burkina Faso with an exciting future ahead of him who became sick from meningitis during an epidemic. Like so many people in the region stricken by the disease, Jean-François lost his hearing and had to adjust to a difficult new life in a community not equipped to handle people who are deaf.

Seeing how Jean-François’s illness affected both the young man and his family helped Marc remember why he pursued a career in public health in the first place— and why a meningitis vaccine is so vital for sub-Saharan Africa.

“That episode has certainly helped stir me, when times have been difficult, to say, ‘No, we have to press on to finish this so that it doesn’t happen again,’” Marc says.

As director of the Meningitis Vaccine Project (MVP), a partnership between PATH and the World Health Organization (WHO), Marc has dedicated the last ten years to developing the vaccine for Burkina Faso and other countries of Africa’s meningitis belt that have suffered from deadly meningitis epidemics for more than a century. In December 2010, Marc saw that commitment come to fruition when the world’s first meningitis A conjugate vaccine, designed specifically for Africa, began reaching nearly 20 million people in the first countrywide vaccination campaigns.

Marc's unanticipated career

Marc began his public health career by accident. In 1966, two years after finishing medical school, he was drafted into the US Public Health Service as an epidemic intelligence service officer at the Communicable Disease Center (CDC), now known as the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia. One of his assignments took him to northeast Thailand as part of a team asked to evaluate the government’s Malaria Eradication Program. During that assignment, he found public health to be “a lot more interesting than what I had been taught in medical school,” Marc says. “There were obvious opportunities where simple interventions could yield important public health benefits for these populations.”

After the CDC work, Marc finished his training in internal medicine and infectious diseases and pursued an academic career at the Universities of Colorado and Rochester. He continued working, whenever possible, in international public health. In the mid-1970s he worked for WHO as a medical officer in the Smallpox Eradication Program in Bangladesh, and he took his academic sabbatical assignments with the Expanded Programme on Immunization at WHO headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. Marc completed assignments for WHO and the US Agency for International Development (USAID) on immunization programs in Asia and Africa through the 1980s and mid-1990s.

Leaving academia

In 1999, frustrated by administrative demands in his academic work that made it difficult to find time for research and for public health assignments, Marc resigned his appointment as a tenured professor at the University of Rochester with plans to finish his career working in international public health. From 1999 to 2001, he directed BASICS II, USAID’s flagship child survival program.

““Once we prevent [meningitis], there are going to be a lot fewer deaf kids in Africa.””
— Dr. Marc LaForce

Two years later, PATH and WHO recruited Marc to direct MVP, aimed at eliminating epidemic meningitis from Africa through the development and introduction of a meningococcal A conjugate vaccine.

Bringing a vaccine to Africa

Starting in 2001, Marc and the MVP team began developing a conjugate vaccine that would provide long-lasting protection against group A meningococcal meningitis—a particularly deadly strain of meningitis specific to the meningitis belt—at a price the countries could afford. In late 2010, only nine years after beginning the process, the new conjugate vaccine called MenAfriVac was introduced in countrywide vaccination campaigns in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger. By the end of 2010, nearly 20 million people had received the new vaccine, marking a significant first step toward widespread protection. More than 250 million people in the meningitis belt have been targeted by WHO to receive the vaccine over the next six to eight years. Read more about this exciting milestone in global health.

Marc is quick to point out that much of the hard work has not yet begun. “The 2010 introduction is really the end of the beginning,” he says, as the team works closely with African countries and international partners to roll out the vaccine over the next few years and ensure that it reaches everyone who needs it.

The vaccine will impact countless lives—including those of people like Jean-François—in a region so long afflicted with of the personal and community pain that meningitis epidemics engender. “Once we prevent this,” Marc says, “there are going to be a lot fewer deaf kids in Africa. That’s a big deal.”

MenAfriVac is a registered trademark of Serum Institute of India Private Ltd.