The first vaccine for children at risk of malaria has been approved by the World Health Organization, according to a press release.
This groundbreaking achievement could save tens of thousands of children each year in sub-Saharan Africa alone, the primary risk zone for the parasitic disease that kills half a million people annually, half of whom are children. Scientists and health advocates alike have heralded the vaccine as a major development in the fight to protect public health.
"For centuries, malaria has stalked sub-Saharan Africa, causing immense personal suffering,” said Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa, in a statement. “We have long hoped for an effective malaria vaccine and now for the first time ever, we have such a vaccine recommended for widespread use.
“Today’s recommendation offers a glimmer of hope for the continent which shoulders the heaviest burden of the disease and we expect many more African children to be protected from malaria and grow into healthy adults,” he said.
The vaccine is the first of its kind to fight a disease caused by a parasite, according to the New York Times. It’s designed to stop the deadliest of the five primary strains of malaria — P. falciparum — and is the result of more than 30 years of research, development, and funding through a partnership between the pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline; Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance; the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria; and Unitaid.
Developing a vaccine for a parasite is much different than developing one for a virus or bacteria.
With viruses and bacterial infections, exposure allows a person to develop antibodies that help them fight future infections. That’s not the case for parasites, which can infect people over and over again. In sub-Saharan Africa, individual children get around six malaria cases per year. Constantly battling malarial infections weakens a child’s immune system and leaves them exposed to other illnesses.
In 2019, there were an estimated 229 million cases of malaria and 409,000 deaths around the world. Of those cases and deaths, 94% occurred in Africa.
While the vaccine is a major step forward, it doesn’t eliminate the threat of malaria.
The WHO recommends four doses of the vaccine over a period of more than 18 months for children under the age of 5 in moderate- to high-risk areas.
All told, around 2.3 million doses of the vaccine have been administered to around 800,000 children since 2019. During the first year, it has been 50% effective at preventing major illness. As the years go on, however, its effectiveness all but vanishes. That essentially means booster shots will be needed to maintain protection.
One study found that the vaccine could prevent 5.4 million cases of malaria and 23,000 deaths in children under the age of 5 annually. In combination with existing drugs and techniques to prevent and treat malaria, its efficacy rate increases. Previously, insecticide-treated mosquito nets were the primary way to combat malaria but major disparities across and within countries meant people living in extreme poverty have often been left exposed, according to UNICEF. These inequalities are worsened by the general lack of health care available to poor people living in rural areas.
But the ease with which vaccines can be administered means that these gaps in protection can now be closed.
“This is a historic moment. The long-awaited malaria vaccine for children is a breakthrough for science, child health, and malaria control,” said WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “Using this vaccine on top of existing tools to prevent malaria could save tens of thousands of young lives each year.”