Yesterday, a landmark pilot program that aims to distribute the world’s first malaria vaccine went live in Malawi. In the next few weeks, the same immunization program will also begin in Kenya and Ghana. It is hoped the new initiative will save the lives of tens of thousands of children at risk of the deadly disease.
The vaccine, known as RTS,S, is the first ever vaccine shown to significantly reduce malaria in children. In clinical trials, the vaccine was effective at preventing 40 percent of malaria cases, 30 percent of severe cases, and 60 percent of severe malaria anemia cases (the most common reason children die from malaria). While these success rates are lower than those of common vaccines for other diseases, RTS,S could still make a significant difference.
The World Health Organization (WHO) describes the vaccine as a “complementary malaria control tool” – it will be used in conjunction with other preventative methods, such as insecticide-treated mosquito nets and insecticide spraying, to reduce overall risk of the disease.
“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. We need new solutions to get the malaria response back on track, and this vaccine gives us a promising tool to get there,” said WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
“The malaria vaccine has the potential to save tens of thousands of children’s lives.”
The majority of people killed by the malaria parasite are children. According to the WHO, about 450,000 people die from the disease each year, with 266,000 deaths being children under the age of five. Young children are one of the most vulnerable groups that malaria affects.
That's why the new vaccine will be given to children under the age of two. It is administered in four doses, once a month for three months followed by a fourth dose 18 months later.
“We know the power of vaccines to prevent killer diseases and reach children, including those who may not have immediate access to the doctors, nurses and health facilities they need to save them when severe illness comes,” explained Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa.
The WHO will assess the uptake of the vaccine and whether parents take their children for all doses at the right times. The vaccine has already been proved safe and effective in Phase 3 clinical trials, but its safety will now be assessed in the context of routine use.
In total, the program aims to vaccinate 360,000 children across the three countries and will target those in areas where malaria risk is moderate to high. The initiative is a collaborative effort between the WHO, the countries' health ministries, non-profit organization PATH, and GSK, who developed the vaccine.
Although malaria is found in tropical regions worldwide, including parts of South America, Asia, and the Middle East, Africa bears the brunt of the disease, experiencing over 90 percent of cases and deaths. The disease is caused by the malaria parasite (Plasmodium falciparum), which is transmitted by Anopheles mosquitoes, 30 species of which are “malaria vectors of major importance”.
After years of global declines, the number of people being diagnosed with malaria has stalled, with the number of cases rising by 2 million between 2016 and 2017. The new vaccine could help push these numbers back down.
“This is a day to celebrate as we begin to learn more about what this tool can do to change the trajectory of malaria through childhood vaccination,” said Moeti.