The World Health Organization (WHO) and partners (have launched the first ever global strategy to defeat meningitis – a debilitating disease that kills hundreds of thousands of people each year.

By 2030, the goals are to eliminate epidemics of bacterial meningitis – the most deadly form of the disease – and to reduce deaths by 70% and halve the number of cases. The organizations estimate that in total, the strategy could save more than 200,000 lives annually and significantly reduce disability caused by the disease.

This strategy, the Global Roadmap to Defeat Meningitis by 2030, was launched by a broad coalition of partners involved in meningitis prevention and control at a virtual event, hosted by WHO in Geneva. Its focus is on preventing infections and improving care and diagnosis for those affected.

Wherever it occurs, meningitis can be deadly and debilitating; it strikes quickly, has serious health, economic and social consequences, and causes devastating outbreaks,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-GeneralIt 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.”

Meningitis is a dangerous inflammation of the membranes that surround the brain and spinal cord, predominantly caused by infection with bacteria and viruses.

Meningitis that is caused by bacterial infection tends to be the most serious – leading to around 250,000 deaths a year – and can cause fast-spreading epidemics. It kills 1 in 10 of those infected – mostly children and young people – and leaves 1 in 5 with long-lasting disability, such as seizures, hearing and vision loss, neurological damage, and cognitive impairment.

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. These epidemics are unpredictable, can severely disrupt health systems, and create poverty – generating catastrophic expenditures for households and communities.

“More than half a billion Africans are at risk of seasonal meningitis outbreaks but the disease has been off the radar for too long,” said Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa. “This shift away from firefighting outbreaks to strategic response can’t come soon enough. This roadmap will help protect the health and lives of hundreds of thousands of families who every year fear this disease.”

Several vaccines protect against meningitis, including meningococcal, Haemophilus influenzae type b and pneumococcal vaccines. However, not all communities have access to these lifesaving vaccines, and many countries are yet to introduce them into their national programmes.

While research is underway to develop vaccines for other causes of meningitis, such as Group B Strepbacteria, 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.

“This roadmap is the embodiment of the ambition of people and families affected around the world who have called for its creation. It’s their experience and passion that has driven a whole community of interest to get this far,” said Vinny Smith, Chief Executive Officer of the Meningitis Research Foundation and the Confederation of Meningitis Organisations (CoMO), an international membership organization of patient advocacy groups for meningitis. “We celebrate together the common goal of defeating meningitis and will be led by their inspiration to make it happen.”

The new Roadmap details the following priorities for meningitis response and prevention:

  • Achievement of high immunization coverage, development of new affordable vaccines, and improved prevention strategies and outbreak response;
  • Speedy diagnosis and optimal treatment for patients;
  • Good data to guide prevention and control efforts;
  • Care and support for those affected, focusing on early recognition and improved access to care and support for after-effects, and
  • Advocacy and engagement, to ensure high awareness of meningitis, accountability for national plans, and affirmation of the right to prevention, care and after-care services.

WHO and partners including United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Médecins Sans Frontières, Epicentre, the Meningitis Research Foundation, PATH, UNICEF, the Gates Foundation and CoMO, are providing support to countries to implement the Roadmap, including through the development of regional and national frameworks that will help countries achieve its ambitious goals.