Opening statement, COVID-19 Press Conference, 8 September 2022

Submitted by on Thu, 08/09/2022 - 11:45

Remarks by WHO Regional Director for Africa, Dr Matshidiso Moeti

Good day, bonjour and welcome to all the journalists who are joining us for this press conference

While we will give you the latest on COVID-19 and other outbreaks which have captured world attention, today I would like to focus on a disease that threatens hundreds of millions of Africans - but has somewhat dropped off the radar.

Meningitis is taking an enormous toll on our countries, with COVID-19 threatening some of the extensive gains that have been made in the past.

I am very pleased to be joined by meningitis immunisation advocate Professor François Marc Laforce, who is the Director of Technical Services at the Serum Institute of India. 

Professor Laforce played a pivotal role, as director of the Meningitis Vaccine Project, in the successful development, and widespread introduction, of the Group A meningococcal conjugate vaccine MenAfriVac. 

This was the first internationally licensed vaccine to provide long-lasting protection against Sub-Saharan Africa’s most important cause of epidemic meningitis.

I am also honoured to be joined by Mrs Omorodion Rhoda, Executive Director of the Care and Development Centre in Nigeria, and a high-level advocate for vaccination against meningitis.

A very warm welcome to both of you, and thank you for joining us.

The defeat of meningitis Group A is one of Africa’s biggest health success stories, with not a single case being reported on the continent in the past five years.

Now, however, the COVID-19 pandemic has delayed vaccination campaigns targeting more than 50 million African children, raising the risk that these gains will be reversed. 

In addition, major outbreaks caused by meningitis Group C have been recorded in seven of the African Sub-Saharan meningitis belt countries in the past nine years. The most recent was a four-month outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which claimed more than 200 lives just last year.

Pandemic-related disruptions saw meningitis prevention and control services slashed by half in 2020, when compared to 2019, followed by only a slight improvement last year.

In 2010, it was strong political commitment that drove the deployment of the very effective vaccine MenAfriVac, that I referred to earlier. Africa’s health ministers had issued a desperate plea following an outbreak 14 years earlier that infected more than 250 000 people, killing 25 000 in a matter of months.

That vaccine has now reached more than 350 million people, with significant results: in 2004, half of all meningitis patients lost their lives. Last year, 95% of them survived, clearly demonstrating the powerful public health impact of vaccines.

MenAfriVac, specifically, was developed through a unique partnership between WHO, the Gates Foundation and PATH. It is a lesson to all of us of the swift progress that collaboration enables - and one we should remain mindful of as we tackle not only meningitis, but also other health threats, like monkeypox.

Today, WHO in the African Region launched an ambitious new strategy, the Regional Framework to Defeat Meningitis by 2030. One of its priority interventions is the rollout of a next-generation vaccine that has been shown in clinical trials to be safe and effective against multiple forms of meningitis.

Community acceptance, which resulted in 95% coverage in affected countries for the MenAfriVac vaccine, is proof of what can be achieved. 

Following this example, the new framework aims to roll out the new vaccine to all 26 meningitis belt countries between 2023 and 2030 – aiming to achieve 90% coverage.

WHO is expected to prequalify the vaccine by the first quarter of next year.

I’d like to urge all our Member States to prioritise the implementation of the strategy now – before the start of the meningitis season in January 2023.

With COVID-19 threatening the immense gains made against meningitis, we cannot drop our guard. 

Turning now to COVID-19, the African continent has seen a six-week decline in cases, with levels now down to those being reported in the very early days of the pandemic.

In the past week, the number of new cases dropped by more than 44% compared to the previous week. The number of deaths also decreased significantly, by 41%. 

However, we still need to sustain our interventions, particularly vaccination.

Meanwhile, for monkeypox, there have now been 581 confirmed cases and 12 deaths across 11 African countries . The majority of cases are in Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and in Ghana.

Of the 12 deaths, six occurred in Nigeria, four in Ghana, and two in the Central African Republic.

Although not a  single monkeypox vaccine has been administered in Africa, WHO’s provision of 39 000 test kits to countries has resulted in improved testing rates. 

These are small steps forward, but we are seeing improvements in surveillance and risk perception. WHO’s guidance on infection prevention, control and treatment of monkeypox has also been adapted to train healthcare workers in all affected countries.

Fundamentally, however, Africa is still not benefiting from either monkeypox vaccines, nor the antiviral treatment Tecovirimat, the only doses of which have been administered in a small study in the Central African Republic on the continent.

Without equitable access, the inherent danger for countries responding to multiple outbreaks is that monkeypox is allowed to become one more preoccupation that absorbs the capacity within challenged health systems, adding an unnecessary burden that these countries can ill afford.

So, I’d like to reiterate our call for a coordinated global response, including equitable access to the available tools to address the monkeypox threat across the continent.

Thank you very much for joining us, and I look forward to our discussions today.