Cuba was ravaged by epidemics in the Seventies and Eighties and scientists there developed a vaccine to prevent the strain of meningitis B responsible for the outbreaks. The rate of meningitis in Cuba is a tenth of that in Britain, with 0.3 cases per 100,000 people. During epidemics, however, 250 people a year were dying in a population of 11 million.
"Many children and young adults lost their lives and others were made severely ill," said Lourdes Alisia Diaz, scientific adviser at the Cuban embassy. "A vaccine was developed against a particular strain of the disease and a mass immunisation programme began.
"Within a few years the numbers of cases of meningitis started to go down and now we have reached the stage where there are just one or two cases of illness among those who have not been vaccinated. As far as the World Health Organisation is concerned meningitis does not exist in Cuba."
Researchers from Imperial College, London, have gone toCuba to see if the vaccine can be developed to combat meningitis in this country. Every year 250 people in Britain die from the disease, which strikes quickly. Cases have doubled over the past 10 years, although there is no known explanation for this, and 1997 saw the highest number of cases since the Second World War.
The scientists in Cuba, whose work will be featured in BBC1's Tomorrow's World this evening, were able to develop a vaccine because the isolated island had only one strain of meningitis B. There are more than a dozen strains of meningitis B in this country, meaning that the vaccine could not be used here in its present state. Trials in Brazil and Iceland of the vaccine have not shown the same success because of this.
Linda Glennie, medical information officer for the Meningitis Research Foundation, in Bristol, said the vaccine worked by focusing on proteins in the outer membrane of the bacteria.
"The results of our tests will not be known until the spring," Ms Glennie said. "The scientists are examining blood taken from children who have been vaccinated to see if it kills the Cuban bacteria and if it can be used to kill other meningitis bacteria.
"We hope that this research project will provide vital clues which will enable scientists to develop a vaccine against B strain, which accounts for about 60 per cent of cases [in Britain]."
The foundation launched a 24-hour helpline yesterday for anyone with a suspected case of meningitis or septicaemia, which the bacteria also cause.
"In many cases last year parents found out too late that a child or teenager was seriously ill," a spokeswoman for the foundation said. "The symptoms are very difficult to diagnose, as they are similar to flu, but people have to trust their instincts and seek medical help if they feel it is something more serious."
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