Children’s Hospital and Clorox partner up to fight against life-threatening disease
on June 10, 2011
In 2005, Elijah Adams, a 10-year-old North Oakland boy, died from meningococcal disease, an often-deadly form of bacterial meningitis. Just a year earlier, 20-year-old UC Berkeley women’s basketball player Alisa Marie Lewis had gone to the emergency room early in the morning complaining of a severe headache, rash and flu-like symptoms. By the afternoon she was dead from the same disease.
Targeting infants, children and young adults, meningococcal disease, which is also referred to as cerebrospinal meningitis, is caused by a severe bacterial infection that attacks a thin lining that covers the brain and spinal cord. The disease comes on quickly, generally starting with flu-like symptoms accompanied by a rash. Quickly, outer appendages, like fingers and toes, turn black as skin tissue dies. Within hours, victims are usually in a coma.
Although fairly rare in the U.S., when meningococcal disease strikes, it can be swift and lethal. And in developing countries, like those in Sub-Saharan Africa, this disease is far more prevalent and dangerous. According to the World Health Organization, in 2009, 14 African countries reported nearly 90,000 suspected cases with over 5,000 deaths. In comparison, the U.S. averages 2,500 cases per year, with approximately 300 deaths, according to the National Institute of Health.
“It’s not a huge number compared to automobile accidents,” says Dr. Dan Granoff, a lead scientist at Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute, who is working on vaccines for the disease. “But it just takes a teenager playing basketball one day who will be dead the next day. It strikes out at people who are very healthy and kills them rapidly.”
Last week, Granoff and his colleagues were able to move one step closer toward their goal of developing successful vaccines against the disease. The Clorox Company, an Oakland-based manufacturer and marketer of consumer products, donated $1 million to help fund the development of vaccines for both a common strain of meningococcal disease in the U.S. and several rampant strains in Africa. This money will help to bring in more resources and scientists to work on the vaccines.
“This donation speaks to two issues,” says Aileen Zerrudo, director of corporate communications at the Clorox Company. “One is being based here in Oakland and supporting the Oakland community and two is supporting a health-related issue that’s so important.” Eventually, the hope is that these vaccines could eradicate meningococcal disease worldwide.
Prevention through vaccination is important for a disease that can attack and debilitate so rapidly. Ten to 15 percent of people who contract meningococcal disease will die even if they get antibiotic treatment, while 10 to 15 percent of survivors have permanent brain damage, hearing loss, kidney failure, loss of arms or legs, speech disorders or chronic nervous system problems, according to the National Institute of Health.
“The hallmark of this disease is the rapid onset,” says Granoff. “You can survive and have amputations or you die. There’s almost no other disease like this.”
Meningococcal disease is spread by person-to-person contact through nose or throat discharges of an infected person, such as sneezing or coughing, although it’s not as contagious as the common flu. It can infect anyone but is most common in infants and children; it also affects college students.
In the U.S. and Europe, a vaccine already exists for several strains of the disease. However, one strain called “Group B,” which disproportionately affects infants and is responsible for between 30 and 50 percent of cases in the U.S. and 90 percent of cases in Europe, does not yet have a vaccine. This is one of the vaccine projects that Granoff is working on.
“Over the last five years, there’s been a good vaccine developed that works and is now recommended for all 11- and 12-year-olds in the U.S. but it doesn’t work on babies,” Granoff says. “A Group B vaccine would cover babies.”
The other meningococcal vaccine project that Granoff is working on is what he calls a “pan-vaccine,” which would be one vaccine covering all strains of the disease that exist in Africa. The World Health Organization calls the Sub-Saharan area that stretches from Senegal in the west to Ethiopia in the east the “meningitis belt” — it covers 25 countries and has the highest rates of the disease in the world.
By 1999, Granoff says, there had been “one million cases in Africa caused by Group A,” the most prevalent strain of the disease. “It was devastating in Africa,” he says. “In Ethiopia there’s been 50,000 cases in that one country,” he adds. “That’s like 500,000 cases in California.”
Over the last 10 years, big strides have been made in controlling the disease in Africa. Granoff said the science was always there for manufacturing the Group A vaccine, but it had been difficult to distribute an affordable vaccine in Africa because there wasn’t a financial incentive for private companies to back it. That’s when the World Health Organization got involved.
Last year, for the first time, the Group A vaccine was given out by a non-profit called the Meningitis Vaccine Project in three countries—Burkina Faso, Niger and Mali. And, just last Thursday, the World Health Organization released data showing that over the last year these three countries had the lowest incidence of Group A cases within the “meningitis belt.”
However, there are still several other strains that exist in Africa. That’s why Granoff is working on developing one super-vaccine that would be able to cover all of them. A large part of the Clorox Company donation will be used to fund this research.
Granoff says he’s extremely grateful to the Clorox Company, “because we are a non-profit research institution, so we get all our funding from grants. And it’s getting more and more difficult with the federal budget declining.” This donation will help make the project succeed, he says.
Right now, Granoff and his colleagues have been able to favorably use this “pan-vaccine” on mice and are working towards their next study, which will be on non-human primates. For their Group B vaccine, they’ve already successfully proven that it can prevent the disease in mice and monkeys. “It works fantastically well,” Granoff says. The next step is testing on humans, which means the vaccine should be widely available in about a decade.
Lead image: Neisseria meningitidis bacteria, which causes meningococcal disease. Photo by Sanofi-Pasteur via Flickr Creative Commons.
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