The first-ever vaccine against malaria will be trialled across three African nations next year, the World Health Organization has announced. It is hoped that the vaccine could help save tens of thousands of lives by preventing children from contracting the disease, which still kills an estimated 429,000 people every year.
“The prospect of a malaria vaccine is great news,” explains Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO regional director for Africa, in a statement. “Information gathered in the pilot will help us make decisions on the wider use of this vaccine. Combined with existing malaria interventions, such a vaccine would have the potential to save tens of thousands of lives in Africa.”
The first countries to get the RTS,S vaccine will be Ghana, Kenya, and Malawi, and will involve over 750,000 children aged between five and 17 months old. While the vaccine has achieved some success in tightly controlled laboratory experiments, researchers are unsure whether this will translate into effective control in the real world, which is why they are only running the pilot in three countries to begin with.
This is because the vaccine requires an intensive treatment program. Those who receive it are administered one shot every month for three months and then a fourth dose 18 months later. It is crucial that the patient receives all four jabs, as the efficacy of the vaccine drops off significantly if the last one is not administered. It is for these reasons that doctors are unsure of the feasibility of such a vaccine in some of the poorest nations on Earth.
If the vaccine is administered, and the full treatment completed, it has been found to prevent up to four in 10 cases of the disease. This might not sound like much, but the WHO reckon that this could translate into saving tens of thousands of lives. Not only that, but it is also thought to cut the most severe cases of malaria by a third.
Its real power, however, could be when it is combined with other preventative measures, such as mosquito nets for beds. This is another reason why Ghana, Kenya, and Malawi have been chosen for the initial pilot, as these nations already have other extensive preventative programs in place, while at the same time still having a high burden of the disease present.
Each country will decide for itself which region will be used in the pilot schemes, but it is expected that they will prioritize those that currently have the highest rates of malaria. It is hoped the information gathered from the pilot will inform later decisions about whether or not it is feasible to roll the vaccine out on a larger scale to more countries ravaged by the disease.