A Global Giant in Defeating Illness
A concerted effort from a global nonprofit, its partners and people around Africa dealt a knockout blow to meningitis.
The Tech Awards, presented by Applied Materials, will be held Nov. 17, 2016. This year, The Tech Awards will celebrate a retrospective of the program’s history by honoring seven past laureates who have made an enormous difference in the world. For more information visit: www.thetech.org/tech-awards-presented-applied-materials.
This year, PATH is receiving the prestigious Laureate Impact Award.
The short video appears on the Meningitis Vaccine Project website. It features smiling children, laughing and happily waving at the camera. These words appear:
“Thank you for imagining a world without meningitis.”
For more than a century, that was only a dream. Periodic outbreaks of the disease would ravage huge sections of an entire continent — even staking claim to its own name, the African meningitis belt. One epidemic alone in the 1990s infected an estimated 250,000 people and killed 25,000.
That nightmare is over. And you realize that those kids weren’t just waving at the camera. They were also waving goodbye to deadly meningitis A.
In a global collaborative project shepherded by the Seattle nonprofit health organization PATH, a revolutionary vaccine called MenAfriVac was created to protect the people of sub-Saharan Africa. Today, that strain of a ruthless, highly contagious disease that attacks the protective membranes covering the brain and spinal cord — especially in children — has been nearly eradicated.
“Wherever the vaccine has been introduced into meningitis belt countries, the disease has really disappeared,” said Mark Alderson, director of PATH’s pneumococcal and polyvalent meningococcal vaccine programs. “There have been virtually no cases of meningitis A in any of the areas where the vaccine has been introduced. The results have been phenomenal.”
The vaccine highlights PATH’s commitment to health equity and focus on driving transformative innovation to save lives. Path reaches more than 150 million people a year across the globe with vaccines, drugs, diagnostic devices and services. PATH now has 81 products and technologies in the pipeline and is working with more than 2,000 partners around the world.
“When you say you’re with PATH, people want to work with you because they understand our mission and what we’re trying to achieve,” Alderson said. “We’re not thinking about how much money we can make. With PATH it’s: ‘How many lives can we save?’ So many scientists like me got into this because our skillset allows us to help people and do good in the world. PATH takes on the biggest problems in the areas of the world that need it the most.”
And it’s why three previous times, PATH has been honored by The Tech Museum of Innovation for very different products:
- In 2003 for the Uniject injection system: A non-reusable, pre-filled syringe developed to help promote vaccinations in developing countries and avoid the re-use of infection-causing dirty needles.
- In 2007 for the vaccine vial monitor (VVM): Temperature-sensitive stickers that can be applied to vaccine vials and will change colors when cold-chain has been broken, ruining the vaccine’s effectiveness.
- In 2009 for Ultra Rice fortification technology: A low-cost fortification technology that packs nutrients into manufactured rice grains to fight malnutrition in developing countries.
PATH is being honored again this year as part of a retrospective gala on Nov. 17, 2016, celebrating the program’s first 15 years. It will receive the prestigious Laureate Impact Award, previously won by Khan Academy and Embrace, for the impact it has had since being named a laureate. Learn more about all of this year’s laureates.
“Honestly, PATH probably could win a Tech Award every year because it does so much good work,” said Craig Stephens, a Santa Clara University professor who oversees the laureate selection process. “PATH exemplifies this idea of working with people, communities and countries. They don’t just arrive and say, ‘This is what we’re going to do for you.’ It’s all about partnerships.”
The Meningitis Vaccine Project is a perfect example of PATH’s rare ability to identify a solvable problem, bring together committed partners and then take the lead on steering the project. Under Marc LaForce, then-director of the project, PATH forged an international alliance that included the World Health Organization.
Previous vaccines to combat meningitis had been largely ineffective because they typically were delivered too late and were not able to invoke a “herd immunity” in the local populations. PATH overcame those challenges by leading the effort to design a more robust, conjugate vaccine that was low-cost enough for developing companies to implement thanks to the work of manufacturer Serum Institute of India Pvt. Ltd.
“PATH is honored to be a member of The Tech Awards family. Thanks to The Tech Awards we have gained valuable attention, new partners and supporters for our global health innovations.”
— Steve Davis, president and CEO of PATH.
After more than 13 years of development, the vaccine’s rollout in 2010 marked the beginning of the end of the deadly scourge of meningitis A across 26 countries.
The scope of the achievement cannot be overstated, said Steve Davis, president and CEO of PATH. It was the first African-specific vaccine — meaning it was tailor-made to withstand the hot climates of the meningitis belt. It was developed in half the time and at one-tenth the cost of most new vaccines. By 2020, more than 400 million people could be protected by the vaccine.
“This is the kind of milestone that comes along once every 50 years,” Davis said. “And this is the kind of achievement that’s necessary if we’re to make real progress on health equity. At PATH, we’re determined to accelerate the pace, by continuing to identify innovations that have immense potential for impact and bring them quickly to scale.”
The work is not done. Alderson is currently leading PATH’s meningitis polyvalent vaccine program. While meningitis A was the most prevalent strain, other versions of the disease still exist.
That’s why a PATH-supported vaccine candidate against other causes of epidemic meningitis are now in clinical trials. The hope is that one day they are part of routine national immunization programs across Africa.
One of the trials is in Mali, a West African nation that has seen so many lives saved by the initial MenAfriVac vaccine. Alderson remembered attending a community event to mark the beginning of the new trials and say thank you.
“There was kind of a parade and dancing and speeches by local community leaders,” Alderson recalled. “It was a real celebration with families and kids. There might have been 500 to 1,000 people there. There were families with kids there as well as government officials and researchers involved in doing the trials.”
They were speaking French and a local language, so he didn’t really understand most of what was being said. But Alderson does remember this.
“Everyone was smiling.”
At a Glance: PATH
Years of Previous Awards: 2003, 2007 and 2009
Regions of Impact: Global
Funding Sources: Foundations, government and international agencies, universities, corporations, nongovernment organizations and more than 2,400 individual donors in 2015 alone.
Problem: A region of sub-Saharan Africa, stretching from Senegal and the Gambia in the west to Ethiopia in the east, is known as the African meningitis belt due to recurrent outbreaks of the deadly disease. From 1996 to 1997, the largest epidemic wave ever recorded caused an estimated 250,000 cases of the meningitis A strain and left 25,000 people dead. Many more cases likely went unrecorded.
Solution: PATH, an international nonprofit health organization, was the driving force in an international partnership called the Meningitis Vaccine Project that developed MenAfriVac — the first vaccine specifically designed for Africa. The vaccine now has reached 235 million Africans, leading to the disappearance of the meningitis A strain wherever it has been introduced.