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WHO Approves First Malaria Vaccine. Are We Seeing The End Of A Malaria Endemic Africa?

The world, and Africa in particular, now have a new weapon to fight malaria which is among the oldest infectious diseases. Despite its long history and the widespread understanding of its nature and cause, malaria has remained one of the deadliest diseases globally. According to the world malaria report 2020, about 409,000 people died from malaria in 2019.

However, the new malaria vaccine, RTS, S/AS01e (RTS, S), provides a glimmer of hope in the fight against malaria among children. Early this month, the World Health Organization (WHO) endorsed RTS, S. During the historic announcement, WHO Director-General, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said,

“This is a historic moment. The long-awaited malaria vaccine for children is a breakthrough for science, child health, and malaria control. Using this vaccine on top of existing tools to prevent malaria could save tens of thousands of young lives each year.”

The beginning of a new era?

WHO has recommended the use of this groundbreaking vaccine to prevent P. falciparum malaria in children. In particular, it approved widespread use of RTS, S in sub-Saharan Africa as well as other regions that witness moderate to high malaria transmission. WHO’s endorsement is in line with the advice from its malaria and immunization advisory bodies.

Key findings from a WHO-coordinated pilot program in three African countries—Kenya, Ghana, and Malawi—revealed that the vaccine can save thousands of children in Africa each year. The vaccine rouses the immune system of a child to thwart Plasmodium falciparum. This malaria pathogen is the deadliest and most common in Africa. According to WHO,

“RTS, S/AS01 malaria vaccine should be provided in a schedule of 4 doses in children from 5 months of age for the reduction of malaria disease and burden.”

GSK welcomes WHO’s recommendation

GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), the British pharmaceutical company that made the vaccine, welcomed WHO’s approval. It also applauded WHO for recommending the deployment of RTS, S to reduce childhood sickness and deaths caused by malaria. The Chief Global Health Officer at GSK, Thomas Breuer, said,

“GSK is proud that RTS, S, our ground-breaking malaria vaccine, developed over decades by our teams and partners, can now be made available to children in sub-Saharan Africa and other regions with moderate to high malaria transmission.”

GSK’s vaccine, whose trade name is Mosquirix, is the first malaria vaccine found to greatly reduce malaria disease among children. This has been proven through long-term clinical trials. The vaccine for malaria is a result of more than 30 years of research by GSK in partnership with other partners including PATH.

GSK is set to develop solutions that will ensure long-term and equitable access to the RTS, S malaria vaccine to those who need it. To start with, the pharmaceutical company has pledged a donation of up to 10 million doses. It will also be supplying up to 15 million doses every year. Going forward, it also plans to work with governments, funders, and partners to support additional supplies.

What the Malaria Vaccine means for Africans

A health worker vaccinating a child against malaria
A health worker vaccinating a child against malaria [Photo credit: Cnbc]
The malaria vaccine is indeed a cause for celebration in Africa. Malaria is estimated to cause about 400,000 deaths annually in the continent. Most of those who succumb are children below five years. Hopefully, the malaria vaccine will significantly reduce malaria deaths in the continent, particularly among children. WHO’s Director in Africa, Dr. Matshidiso Moeti said,

“Today’s recommendation offers a glimmer of hope for the continent, which shoulders the heaviest burden of the disease. We expect many more African children to be protected from malaria and grow into healthy adults.”

GSK advises that RTS, S is not a silver bullet in combating malaria. Rather, it is meant to complement other preventive measures like medicines and bed nets. But some people have criticized the malaria vaccine for having only modest efficacy.

Nevertheless, many expect the vaccine to have a significant impact in fighting malaria in Africa. Does this new vaccine signal that malaria is ending in Africa? Also, is it possible that with abuse the malaria vaccine can lose its efficacy over time? Share your views in the comments section below.

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