A pilot program testing the first ever malaria vaccine will begin in Africa in 2018, the World Health Organization has said. Children and babies in high-risk areas in Ghana, Kenya and Malawi will receive the RTS,S vaccine, which is also known as Mosquirix.
“Information gathered in the pilot will help us make decisions on the wider use of the vaccine,” Matshidiso Moeti, the WHO’s African regional director, said. “Combined with existing malaria interventions, such a vaccine would have the potential to save tens of thousands of lives in Africa.”
RTS,S is an injectable vaccine administered in four doses. It aims to trigger the body’s own immune system to defend against malaria caused by Plasmodium falciparum – the most deadly species of the malaria parasite, which is the most prevalent in Africa.
Large clinical trials in seven African countries between 2009 and 2014 showed that the vaccine helped protect children and infants from clinical malaria for at least three years after first vaccination.
According to the WHO’s World Malaria Report, published at the end of last year, the number of cases of malaria worldwide decreased by 21 percent between 2010 and 2015. However, Pedro Alonso, the director of the WHO’s Global Malaria Program, explains that there is a long way to go in tackling the disease: “It still takes the lives of over 400,000 people every year – mostly African children.”
In fact, 90 percent of malaria cases and 92 percent of malaria deaths occur in Africa. The long lifespan of mosquitoes in Africa, as well as their tendency to bite humans, is thought to be one of the main reasons for the high prevalence of malaria in Africa.
By the year 2020, the WHO wants to see malaria incidence and mortality reduced by 40 percent and the disease eliminated completely in at least 10 countries. Seven countries, including Morocco, the United Arab Emirates and the Maldives, have been certified by the WHO Director-General as having eliminated malaria in recent years.
Mosquito nets and insecticides
Preventative measures being promoted in sub-Saharan Africa include using insecticide-treated nets, spraying indoor walls with insecticides, and administering preventive medicines to the most vulnerable groups – pregnant women and young children or babies.
Mothers in Sierra Leone sit with their children, who have contracted malaria
In 2015 it was estimated that half of people designated as “at-risk” of contracting the disease were sleeping under a treated net, compared with just 30 percent in 2010. But, as Alonso explains, preventative measures are not reaching everyone.
“It’s about having the health systems that can get those commodities to all those that need them,” he says. “It’s about the financial resources to ensure that happens, and it’s about the political commitment.
“We are very encouraged by the political commitment and leadership we see in the affected countries themselves. But the fight against malaria is going to be a long and hard one.”