WHO launches roadmap to defeat meningitis by 2030

28 Sep 2021

Today, in Geneva, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization and partners launched “Defeating Meningitis by 2030: A Global Roadmap”.

Despite successful efforts to control meningitis in several regions, meningitis continues to be a major public health issue.

Professor Sir Brian Greenwood, co-chair of the Task Force supporting the implementation of the roadmap and Editor-in-Chief of our journal Transactions, in an editorial backing the roadmap, states:

“The success of vaccination programmes has led to a perception in some organisations that the problem of ABM [acute bacterial meningitis] is over, but the numbers [sic] show that this is not the case and that there is still much more that needs to be done to bring ABM under full control.”

Epidemics strike fast

Indeed, meningitis still kills about 250,000 people annually and leaves at least one in ten of those affected with long-term devastating sequelae.

Acute bacterial meningitis is also associated with a high fatality (at least 50% when untreated), with early antibiotic treatment being the most important measure to save lives and reduce complications.

Meningitis epidemics can strike fast, are unpredictable and cause massive disruption to communities and health systems, as well as creating poverty by generating catastrophic expenditures for households and communities.

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.

Dr Tedros said: “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.”

Three visionary goals

Overwhelmingly endorsed by Members States at the 73rd Session of the World Health Assembly in January this year, the roadmap includes three visionary goals, namely to:

  • eliminate epidemics of bacterial meningitis
  • reduce cases of vaccine-preventable bacterial meningitis by 50% and deaths by 70% and
  • reduce disability and improve quality of life after meningitis of any cause.

An ambitious target

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.

As well as backing the roadmap, Professor Greenwood, calls for more funding to ensure the roadmap meets its ambitious goals:

“Different institutions have been given overall responsibility for moving forward individual components of the road map and the Taskforce will continue to provide overall technical leadership and coordination. However, none of this will be possible unless enough resources are made available to take forward the key activities proposed.

“Although the main burden of meningitis is in poor countries, acute bacterial meningitis is a global problem with no country being spared its devastating impact.” 

“Thus, containing this serious group of infections needs a global response. This is what the roadmap sets out to achieve, bringing together – under the umbrella of WHO – health professionals from across the world to bring this condition under control by 2030.”

COVID-19 and meningitis

As with many other infections, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has had an impact on meningitis.

Lockdowns and other control measures have resulted in a drop in vaccination rates, but also a slowing down in the spread of pathogens.

Professor Greenwood goes on to say:

“This short-term positive situation could lead to a dangerous disinterest in the fight against the pathogens responsible for ABM which would compromise the achievement of the objectives of the road map, unless vigorous efforts are made to counter this complacency.”

RSTMH and the roadmap

Professor Greenwood concluded:

"Acute bacterial meningitis is a problem across the globe and achieving the goals of the roadmap will require a global response.

"RSTMH, through its membership across the globe. including in low and middle income countries where the burden of ABM is highest, is in a strong position to help in achieving the goal of ‘defeating meningitis by 2030’, a challenging but achievable objective."