Malaria remains one of the world’s leading killers, but a vaccine trial is offering new hope to communities that suffer most from the disease.
Malawi became the first country to implement a pilot program to dispense a malaria vaccine for children last week. Scientists with the U.K.-based GSK pharmaceutical company took 30 years to develop the vaccine. It trains the immune system to attack the malaria parasite, spread by the female Anopheles mosquito.
Malaria remains one of the deadliest diseases in the world, particularly in Africa, where it kills more than 250,000 children annually. Globally, at least one child dies of malaria every two minutes. In Malawi, about 5.9 million people contracted the disease in 2017 out of a population of 18.6 million, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported. The disease costs Africa an estimated $12 billion every year and drains the gross domestic product of countries on the continent by 5 to 6 percent, according to the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
Clinical trials showed the vaccine successfully prevented 4 in 10 malaria cases. The numbers are low compared to vaccines for other diseases, but the effort should still provide a needed boost in the fight against malaria. In 2017, cases of the disease continued to rise for the second year in a row after more than a decade of decline. Workers will implement the vaccine alongside other preventive measures, including insecticides and treated bed nets.
“We have seen tremendous gains from bed nets and other measures to control malaria in the last 15 years, but progress has stalled and even reversed in some areas,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO’s director-general. “We need new solutions to get the malaria response back on track, and this vaccine gives us a promising tool to get there.”
Ghana will also launch the program this week, joined by Kenya in the coming weeks. Each country’s national immunization program will dispense the four-dose treatment to children between the ages of 5 and 18 months. The program will vaccinate about 360,000 children each year in the three countries.
The vaccine received interagency funding from groups like Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, Unitaid, and the Seattle-based PATH health group, among others. The health ministries in the three countries will also include it in their routine immunization program. Malawi is deploying it in 11 districts with moderate to high rates of malaria transmission, where the vaccine can have the greatest effect.
One mother, who brought her youngest children to the Mitundu Community Hospital to receive the first dose, said she wanted to ensure her child is protected.
“My husband was diagnosed with malaria, but there was no medication available at the hospital,” said Alinafe Tsitsi. “I was scared for his life. When I found out about the malaria vaccine, I wanted my child to have it.”
Debbie Atherly, head of vaccine policy, access, and delivery at PATH, told me the pilot programs would observe possible challenges, such as whether mothers are able to take their children for all four doses. The long-term goal will focus on providing access to the vaccine in more countries.
“The pilot introductions are meant to last until 2023, but a recommendation for broader use could be made before that,” Atherly said. “Then it would be up to the countries to decide.”