Medical Technology

WHO Unveils Global Roadmap to Defeat Meningitis by 2030

The World Health Organization (WHO) and its partners recently released an ambitious plan, the Global Roadmap to Defeat Meningitis by 2030. Their goal is to reduce deaths and disabilities from bacterial meningitis, which kills about 250,000 people annually of the 1.2 million estimated to be infected.

This type of infection around the brain and spinal cord also causes long-term disabilities — deafness, learning problems, seizures, loss of limbs — in about one quarter of survivors.

The leading causes of bacterial meningitis are Neisseria meningitidis (meningococcus), Streptococcus pneumoniae (pneumococcus), Haemophilus influenzae, and group B streptococcus. As with malaria, about half of the cases are in children under age 5 years. The most severely affected area for both infections is sub-Saharan Africa.

The main goal of the Roadmap is to reduce vaccine-preventable cases of bacterial meningitis by 50% and deaths by 70% by 2030. WHO’s partners included the CDC, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders), the Meningitis Research Foundation, PATH, UNICEF, and numerous global consultants.

For primary prevention and epidemic control, a major goal is to achieve higher vaccine coverage. Another goal is developing and deploying rapid diagnostic tests to guide treatment and prevention activities and measure the impact of vaccination. The lack of laboratory capacity to confirm the bacteria is a significant challenge. Also, patients often receive antibiotics before appropriate tests are conducted, and lumbar punctures are frequently not done.

The commitment to this project emerged in 2017. It was followed by a baseline analysis in 2018 and a draft road map the following year. Consultations with experts and with more than 600 patient groups in more than 90 countries followed.

Prevention through greater vaccine uptake was the top priority. Vaccination is considered the first line of defense against antibiotic resistance among the targeted bacteria.

Another goal is to quantify the decrease in antibiotic use for invasive infections or prophylaxis and the subsequent reduction in antimicrobial resistance in relation to increased vaccination.

Surveillance is weak in many regions, limiting the ability to detect epidemics and to respond appropriately. Similarly, there are limited data on the burden of sequelae, such as deafness, on meningitis survivors.

There is an inadequate supply of affordable vaccines to respond to epidemics.  Currently, routine vaccination against Neisseria meningitidis is only occurring in 18 of 26 countries in the meningitis belt. Epidemics of meningococcus occur every few years in the driest time of the year and abate with the rains. Epidemics of pneumococcal meningitis are much rarer but follow a similar pattern; they have also been associated with crowding and alcohol use.

Care for those affected by meningitis is another focus, as is affirming the right to prevention and care. There’s a need for earlier recognition of the complications of meningitis and an increase in efforts to treat those complications.

WHO’s final goal in its roadmap is to boost awareness of meningitis and make it a priority for policymakers. Similarly, there is a need to educate communities about the disease, including how to access vaccines. If someone becomes ill, they need to be aware of the symptoms, the need for early treatment, and what aftercare is available.

Marie-Pierre Préziosi, MD, the core secretariat of WHO’s Technical Taskforce, told Medscape Medical News that while the Roadmap looks aspirational, “it is feasible…you have strategic goals — each has milestones with time limits and who will do it.”

Regarding vaccinations, Preziosi said that “the strategy was a victim of its success. The mass campaign knocked down transmission completely.” Some countries are now waiting for multivalent vaccines. She said that vaccine hesitancy is not a significant problem in Africa “because the disease is so feared.”

Major obstacles to implementing the Roadmap include the complacency of public health leaders and the COVID lockdowns, which decreased vaccination coverage rates. “The second thing is also sufficient funding to do the research and innovation so that we get the affordable tools that we need globally,” Preziosi said.

Marilyn Felkner, DrPH, School of Human Ecology, University of Texas at Austin, told Medscape Medical News, “It’s very cliché, but we have often said that communicable diseases do not respect political boundaries. So to expect a country to be able to control that by themselves is a false hope.”

Regarding the Roadmap, Felkner said, “I think that organizing ideas and having them in writing is always a good first step. And it can help people move forward if they’re feeling overwhelmed…Having a written plan can certainly provide that fundamental basis. So, the important thing is not to say, ‘Oh, we have this great plan done; hope somebody picks up the plan.’ There’s got to be some momentum behind it, and hopefully some funding.”

Preziosi and Felkner have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

Judy Stone, MD, is an infectious disease specialist and author of Resilience: One Family’s Story of Hope and Triumph Over Evil and of Conducting Clinical Research , the essential guide to the topic. You can find her at or on Twitter @drjudystone .

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