Fight against malaria gets a boost as Malawi launches vaccine pilot

[Image Credit: WHO/M. Nieuwenhof]

Malaria has been a major threat to health and well-being across the African continent. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), in 2015 there were about 212 million malaria cases and about 429,000 malaria deaths globally, and 90% of malaria cases, as well as 92% of malaria deaths were in sub-Saharan Africa.

Hopefully that’s about to change as Malawi is now the first of three (3) African countries to pilot the world’s first malaria vaccine called RTS,S. The other African countries are Ghana and Kenya who are expected to launch the vaccine shortly as well.

According to WHO, the pilot countries were chosen from 10 African countries following the organization’s request for expressions of interest. WHO states that the criteria for its selection of countries included “well-functioning malaria and immunization programmes, and areas with moderate to high malaria transmission.”

The need for a new approach to tackle malaria across Africa is emphasized by the seemingly stagnant progress of current measures such as 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. 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 WHO considers the vaccine an “innovative milestone” that took about thirty years to develop. The RTS,S holds much promise of significantly strengthening the continent’s enduring fight against malaria. Its clinical trials showed a 40% success rate of preventing clinical malaria cases; 30% success rate in cases of life-threatening severe malaria; and 60% success rate of severe malaria anaemia, which is the most common reason children die from malaria.

As the child vaccination programme rolls out in selected areas in the pilot countries, the vaccine will be administered in four (4) doses: 3 doses between 5 and 9 months of age, and the fourth dose will be administered around two years of age.

The WHO hopes to vaccinate up to 360,000 children as well as gather results and data that will inform improvements to the programme which is a collaborative effort with the various health ministries of the pilot countries, various in-country and international partners such as PATH, and GSK, who developed and manufactures the vaccine, and has donated up to 10 million vaccine doses for this pilot programme.

The vaccine however will not eliminate other existing malaria control measures, but will be included to the WHO-recommended measures for malaria prevention and control.

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