Tuesday marked an important day for global health efforts as a first-of-its-kind pilot malaria vaccine program launched in Malawi, just days before World Malaria Day on April 25.
After extensive research and development, as well as clinical trials conducted in multiple African countries, the RTS,S vaccine will be rolled out first in Malawi this week, followed by Ghana and Kenya in coming weeks.
“The thing about malaria is, it has been around a long time,” Dr. David Schellenberg, scientific adviser for the WHO Global Malaria Programme, told Global Citizen. “And it is one of the single most important causes of disease and death in the world.”
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There are over 200 million cases of malaria reported around the globe every year, with more than 400,000 deaths — most of which are children under 5 years old in sub-Saharan Africa.
“It’s an appalling reflection on many things,” Schellenberg said. “We do have tools which can prevent malaria and can be used to treat malaria, but it’s difficult to get them to the people who need them.”
The vaccine, which is called Mosquirix and was developed by GlaxoSmithKline with the PATH Malaria Vaccine Initiative, will be used to supplement existing tools like insecticide bed nets and other repellents. Schellenberg and his team are optimistic that it will lead to significant gains in global health.
🌍’s first #Malaria vaccine pilot is launched in #Malawi, the first country in Africa to roll out this landmark vaccine, known as RTS,S. The vaccine will be available to children from 5 months old to 2 years. https://t.co/EWv4KXu1Vzpic.twitter.com/KzRKbdqHXW— World Health Organization (WHO) (@WHO) April 23, 2019
“The vaccine is far from perfect. It only reduces malaria by about 40%, but when you’ve got hundreds of millions of cases, 40% is actually something that… has real potential for public health impact,” he said.
What’s more is that clinical trials found that children who were immunized but contracted the sickness were less likely to become infected with severe malaria cases, which Schellenberg points out should also help reduce mortality rates.
The malaria vaccine program will face challenges. For starters, as a first-generation vaccine, it has to be given in four doses, which means parents will need to bring their children to the vaccine clinic four times. That can be a tall ask in rural sub-Saharan Africa. This also means, though, that parents and children might attend health centers more often, which could lead them to be exposed to other important vaccines and services, too.
The pilot program announced this week has the goal of immunizing 360,000 children aged 2 years and under per year.
During the pilot, teams will work out how to best deliver the vaccine, maximize its reach and understand the regions in which its likely to have the highest impact, while keeping an eye on the program’s economic implications.
After working out the nuances of the program, Schellenberg says the data generated will ultimately help determine the policy recommendations for the future of the vaccine program.
In the meantime, support and investment in the development of the second generation of this vaccine could also be beneficial, but Schellenberg doesn’t downplay the accomplishment of the first generation.
“It’s taken 30 years to get this vaccine, RTS,S, to get to where it is now,” he said. “We’re certainly not going to stand by for another 30 years for the next candidate to come along.”