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Anya Sitaram meets the African scientist running the new Ebola vaccine trial in Mali

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Anya Sitaram meets the African scientist running the new Ebola vaccine trial in Mali

Professor Samba Sow greets me with an unusual handshake. He extends his hand forward, knuckles clenched. I do the same quizzically and we knock knuckles. He then bangs his knuckles on his chest.  “It’s the Ebola shake,” he laughs.  No need to wash your hands afterwards.

We are in Bamako the capital of Mali to film the latest developments on a new vaccine for meningitis A.  MenAfriVac is the first vaccine developed specifically for Africa and from 2015 will be introduced into the routine immunization programmes of countries in Africa’s “meningitis belt”.  It is an extraordinary achievement: a new vaccine custom made for Africa, priced at just 40 cents a dose and expected to eliminate the deadly disease within ten years.

Professor Sow and his team at Mali’s Centre for Vaccine Development have been carrying out clinical trials of MenAfriVac.  But though we’re in Mali to talk about meningitis, there is another terrifying disease on everyone’s minds. Mali has not yet had any cases of Ebola, but bordered by Guinea and Cote D’Ivoire which have both been hit, people are worried that it is only a matter of time.

Professor Sow is regularly called to the border with Guinea, a two-hour drive from Bamako, to deal with suspected cases. Since April he has put 12 patients in isolation and found them all to be negative after carrying out tests. I ask him why other doctors don’t get called to test suspected cases. They do, he replies, but for one reason or another are never available. 

Samba Sow says that he is probably the doctor most at risk of contracting Ebola in Mali.  But soon there could be a better means of protection than his Ebola suit.  Next week the team from Mali’s Centre for Vaccine Development join scientists in the UK and the USA in conducting trials on a vaccine against Ebola. He says. “It’s a phase 1 safety trial but has been one hundred percent effective in animals”.   He is proud that his centre has been chosen to carry out the clinical trials.  Africans are in forefront of the fight against the disease, not just victims.

If the trials are successful, the World Health Organisation will take the unusual step of rushing out a limited release of vaccines to affected countries by the end of 2014.

As we say goodbye I wish him a restful weekend. He smiles ruefully. There is another suspected case, five hours drive away at the Cote d’Ivoire border and it looks like he will have to go to investigate. With health workers one of the three groups most at risk of contracting Ebola, it is not surprising that Professor Sow is pinning his hopes on the new vaccine.

September 2014