The World Health Organization (WHO) on October 6 approved the first malaria vaccine for children. The UN agency called it a “historic moment”. According to Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa, the RTS, S/AS01 vaccine, known as Mosquirix, is a “ray of hope” for Africa. It will now be launched to protect children from one of the world’s oldest and deadliest diseases. Malaria and global child health expert Dr. Miriam K. Laufer answered questions about the vaccine and the WHO announcement.
Why is this being considered a big event?
Millions of children die every year from malaria. Most of these deaths occur in sub-Saharan Africa. This is the first time that researchers, vaccine makers, policy makers have successfully created a vaccine that has made it through clinical trials and has received not only regulatory approval but also approval from WHO. This vaccine prevents about 30 percent of severe cases of malaria that are more likely to cause death.
Researchers knew that RTS,S was effective in well-controlled clinical trials, but some questions remained about whether it was possible to safely introduce a four-dose vaccine to sub-Saharan African countries. However, since 2019, malaria vaccine implementation programs in Malawi, Kenya and Ghana have shown good progress. So far, about 8,00,000 children have been vaccinated in these three countries.
How dangerous is malaria?
Malaria, transmitted by mosquito bites, causes about half a million deaths per year, and most of these victims are children in sub-Saharan Africa. This is a disease that makes the poorest of the poor a victim. It causes most disease and death in places where people do not have access to basic health care, where habitat conditions allow mosquitoes to enter and where inadequate water management provides breeding sites for mosquitoes. Malaria outbreaks have continued and even increased over the past several years, despite international efforts to control it.
How effective will vaccines be compared to other treatments?
Reports of trials submitted to WHO showed that all children in areas with moderate to high risk of malaria would have access to the vaccine. This will save lives from life-threatening infections, especially among children with limited access to health services. Prevention measures are always more effective than curing the disease, especially in the case of infections such as malaria. Medicines are sometimes used to prevent malaria, but they have to be given frequently, which is costly and also inconvenient. In addition, the more often the drug is used, the more likely it is that malaria parasites will develop resistance to the drug.
Why did it take so long to develop a vaccine?
The lack of political will to develop a malaria vaccine certainly played a part. With no real market for malaria vaccines in resource-rich countries such as the US, pharmaceutical companies did not have a strong financial incentive to accelerate vaccine development. There are many different types of proteins for malaria, so finding a vaccine that covered them all was a challenge.