Africa obtains “historic” malaria vaccine approval for children

October 7, 2021
Africa obtains “historic” malaria vaccine approval for children

The World Health Organization (WHO) has approved of a malaria vaccine for use for children within the African continent. This announcement comes after the successful completion of pilot immunisation programmes with the vaccine in Ghana, Kenya, and Malawi. The WHO added that the malaria vaccine would be distributed to regions with moderate to high malaria transmission.

One of the biggest scourges on humanity, malaria is a disease caused by parasite, spread by the bite of blood-sucking mosquitos. There are more than 100 types of malaria parasite – it is adept at invading the immune system and still destroys vital cells along the way. According to health data, children and babies account for most of the fatalities caused by malaria.

The greatest burden of the disease is felt in Africa, where more than 260,000 children died from the disease in 2019.

“Imagine your young child could be healthy one day and full of potential and then after the bite of an infected mosquito, while playing with friends or sleeping in a bed, they could be dead in a couple of weeks,” supplied Dr. Ashley Birkett, from the PATH Malaria Vaccine Initiative (MVI).

The WHO-sanctioned vaccine known as RTS,S will therefore target the deadliest and most common malaria parasite in Africa: Plasmodium falciparum. RTS,S is able to target the sporozoite form of the parasite (this is the stage between being bitten by a mosquito and the parasite getting to the liver).

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Despite doubts vaccine would work, the pilot immunisation programme – which included over 2.3 million doses of the vaccine – confirmed that it was safe, cost-effective, and most importantly led to a 30% reduction in severe malaria. The vaccine provided some degree of protection to more than two-thirds of African children who slept without a bed-net, to keep mosquitoes away.

“It is quite an exciting moment for us, with large-scale vaccination I believe the malaria [death] toll will be reduced to the barest minimum,” said Dr. Kwame Amponsa-Achiano, who piloted the mass vaccine drive in Ghana. Constantly catching malaria as a child inspired Dr Amponsa-Achiano to become a doctor in Ghana. This initiative holds a place close to his heart.

The vaccine, developed by the pharmaceutical giant GSK, will be used alongside insecticide-treated bed nets in Africa; it will also not used outside of Africa where different forms of malaria, which the vaccine cannot protect against, are more prevalent.

“The long-awaited malaria vaccine for children is a breakthrough for science, child health and malaria control,” Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-general of the WHO, concluded.

“[It] could save tens of thousands of young lives each year.”

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