* Cheap new vaccine "dramatically better" than standard shot
* Experts say vaccine could end "meningitis belt" epidemics
By Kate Kelland
LONDON, June 15 (Reuters) - A cheap new meningitis vaccine designed to treat a type of the disease common in Africa could significantly reduce or even halt future epidemics in Africa's so-called "meningitis belt", scientists said on Wednesday.
International researchers said the vaccine, called MenAfriVac and made by the Indian generic drugmaker Serum Institute, was 20 times as effective as an older vaccine in trials in three countries.
In two studies in the New England Journal of Medicine, in which MenAfriVac's potency and effectiveness was compared with a standard vaccine often used during meningitis outbreaks in the region, scientists said the new shot was "dramatically better".
MenAfriVac was developed for use against meningitis A, a type which causes regular epidemics in Africa, and costs just 50 U.S. cents per dose.
Marie-Pierre Preziosi of the World Health Organisation's (WHO) immunisation, vaccines and biologicals department, said its use could significantly reduce or stop epidemics in the belt stretching from Senegal in the west to Ethiopia in the east, which currently has the highest rates of the disease in the world.
"The potential is there, there's no doubt about that," Preziosi, who worked on the studies, said in a telephone interview.
"The studies were very conclusive. The new vaccine was dramatically better than the currently used vaccine and this was shown in all age groups, including adults," she said.
Bacterial meningitis, called meningococcal meningitis, is a serious infection of the thin lining surrounding the brain and spinal cord. It can cause severe brain damage and is fatal in 50 percent of cases if untreated.
Even with antibiotic treatment, around 10 percent of patients die and up to 20 percent are left with brain damage, deafness, epilepsy, or necrosis leading to limb amputation.
Preziosi, who worked with 24 other investigators on the studies which were conducted in Mali, Gambia and Senegal, said results showed that compared to the older polysaccharide vaccine, MenAfriVac was "about 20 times more effective".
According to the non-profit Meningitis Vaccine Project (MVP), which helped develop the MenAfriVac vaccine, the seasonal outbreak of meningitis across sub-Saharan Africa in 2009 infected at least 88,000 people and killed more than 5,000.
WHO data released earlier this week showed Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, the first three countries to receive MenAfriVac after it was launched last year, had their lowest recorded numbers of meningitis A cases in an epidemic season this year.
The figures showed just four confirmed meningitis A cases in Burkina Faso, the first country to introduce the vaccine nationwide. No confirmed cases were reported in Mali, while four cases were reported in Niger, all in unvaccinated people. [ID:nLDE6AL26N] [ID:nLDE758214] (Editing by Jan Harvey)