More than 1 million children in Ghana, Kenya, and Malawi are now protected against malaria, thanks to the first-ever malaria vaccine, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported on Thursday.
The RTS,S/AS01 (RTS,S) vaccine pilot program first launched with the government of Malawi in April 2019 and it has proven to be safe and to substantially reduce deadly severe malaria, according to the WHO.
“As a malaria researcher in my early career, I dreamed of the day we would have an effective vaccine against this devastating disease,” Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director-general, said in a statement. “This vaccine is not just a scientific breakthrough, it’s life-changing for families across Africa. It demonstrates the power of science and innovation for health. Even so, there is an urgent need to develop more and better tools to save lives and drive progress towards a malaria-free world.”
The COVID-19 pandemic had a detrimental impact on health services around the world and programs in place to stem and treat malaria were no exception.
The 2021 World Malaria Report noted that while the “worst-case scenario” of a doubling of malaria deaths did not play out, interruptions to the initiatives did lead to a year-over-year increase in cases and deaths in 2020.
There were an estimated 241 million malaria cases and 627,000 malaria deaths in 2020, accounting for about 14 million more cases and 69,000 more deaths than in 2019, according to the report. About 47,000 of these deaths were attributed to “disruptions in the provision of malaria prevention, diagnosis, and treatment during the pandemic.”
That is why the success of the RTS,S vaccine is so notable.
Today, malaria is one of the main causes of childhood illness and death in sub-Saharan Africa. Every year, more than 260,000 African children under 5 die from malaria.
But the WHO estimates that the vaccine could prevent 40,000 to 80,000 childhood deaths in Africa every year, if widely delivered.
While more than $155 million has been allocated for the introduction, procurement, and delivery of the vaccine for eligible countries in sub-Saharan Africa via Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, more funding is needed for research and development, according to the 2021 World Malaria Report.