Three ways meningitis vaccines have helped changed the course of history

March 2023

Vaccines offer a safe and effective way to protect against some of the common causes of meningitis and septicaemia and are routinely available around the world.

Thanks to immunisation, impressive strides have been made in the prevention and control of meningitis, reducing the number of cases and ultimately saving millions of lives.

We take a closer look at three ways meningitis vaccines have helped change the course of history by forging a new path in the fight against the disease.

1. Saving millions of lives

Together with clean water, immunisation against disease is the public health intervention that has the most positive impact on the world’s health. Between 2000 and 2023 it has been estimated that over 41 million lives across 112 low- and middle-income countries were saved by vaccines that protect against causes of meningitis. Meningitis vaccines have had a demonstrably, dramatic effect. For example, the highly successful MenAfriVac campaign, which was rolled out in 1 to 29 years olds across sub-Saharan Africa, was designed to reduce infection and prevent transmission of the bacteria within the population.

While this area of the world has been subject to huge epidemics of MenA meningitis in the past, the vaccine has virtually eliminated cases of meningitis due to MenA in the countries where mass campaign roll-outs have taken place. For cases to remain low in the region however, it is vital that countries routinely introduce MenA containing vaccines into their routine childhood schedules, so future generations are protected.

In the UK, following the introduction of the MenC vaccine in 1999 the number of cases fell by over 90% in all age groups immunised. There are now only a handful of cases in all age groups each year.

2. Helping to wipe out some of the leading causes of meningitis

Some of the leading bacterial causes of meningitis have almost been wiped out in some parts of the world.

In the UK, the introduction of the Hib vaccine in 1992 resulted in a more than 90% reduction in meningitis caused by Haemophilus influenzae type B. Today cases remain rare.

Thanks to global initiatives such as Gavi (the vaccine alliance which works to increase vaccine equity), Hib vaccine has been introduced to routine childhood immunisation schedules in 192 of 194 countries worldwide. However, the proportion of the population who have been vaccinated varies widely between regions, so many children remain unprotected. If you would like to find out more about vaccine coverage in your part of the world you can use our Meningitis Progress Tracker.

3. Informing the approach to the control and prevention of disease

Immunisation schedules have adapted over time in response to research findings and on-going disease surveillance.

Research showed conjugate vaccines protected the vaccinated by helping to show the immune system how to fight these infections, and prevented them from passing on diseases to others. This effect, known as herd protection, has since gone on to inform immunisation strategies globally.

For example, in the UK, the Hib and MenC conjugate vaccines were originally routinely given to infants because this age group were at the highest risk of contracting disease. However, subsequent research showed that conjugate vaccines didn't just provide direct protection to those vaccinated but could also help protect the wider population by preventing the bacteria from being carried in the back of the nose and throat. This means that by vaccinating the age groups that are most likely to carry the bacteria, the wider population can be protected by reducing transmission, protecting the unvaccinated through 'herd protection'.

This forms part of the reasoning behind the teenage MenACWY vaccine - research showed that this age group were key to transmission within the population, so immunising this group was key to keeping disease levels low.

Immunisation strategies across the globe have benefitted from this learning and use herd protection to get the biggest impact from vaccines today.

You can find everything you need to know about how to protect the ones you care about from meningitis on our vaccine information page.

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