Malawi Children to be First to Receive Groundbreaking Malaria Vaccine

Malawi is the first nation in the world to roll out the landmark malaria vaccine. Some 360,000 African children expected to benefit every year from this pilot program.

The rollout is underway in Malawi as of April, with children under the age of two getting the vaccine. Kenya and Ghana will also begin rolling out the vaccine within the next few weeks, with individual governments deciding which areas to target for maximum effect.

Scientists have been hard at work developing a malaria vaccine for the past 30 years. Known as “RTS,S” it is the only malaria vaccine currently on offer. It has demonstrated a modest but still significant success rate, with the ability to prevent around four in 10 malaria cases.

Its value really comes into focus when we look at life-threatening malaria. The vaccine has shown the potential to prevent three in 10 such cases. This may not sound that impressive, but when we consider that 435,000 people die of malaria every year, and that children, pregnant women and the infirm are the most at risk of serious malarial disease, the vaccine’s potential to save vulnerable lives becomes obvious.

The World Health Organization has said that the vaccine is a necessary next step in the fight against Malaria, adding to progress that has already been made with interventions like mosquito nets.

“We have seen tremendous gains from bed nets and other measures to control malaria in the last 15 years, but progress has stalled and even reversed in some areas. We need new solutions to get the malaria response back on track, and this vaccine gives us a promising tool to get there,” said WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “The malaria vaccine has the potential to save tens of thousands of children’s lives.”

While the medical community has made great strides in the fight against malaria, recent figures show that malaria rates are no longer falling. That means our current interventions are no longer capable of driving downward momentum. The malaria vaccine could create new energy in this drive and work alongside existing interventions to save more lives than ever before.

Malawi hopes to immunize 120,000 children aged two years and below. It is important to note that while this is a pilot program, that does not mean that the vaccine has not been tested at scale before. As the BBC notes, seven countries have been involved in large-scale trials with over 15,000 children participating.

The trials demonstrated that not only is the vaccine effective, it is also safe. Yes, some side-effects can arise from the vaccine—for example localized irritation, sickness and some short term elevated risk of fever-related seizures from which the child usually makes a full recovery—but the benefits of the vaccine far outweigh the relatively small risk of even mild complications.

The pilot program is intended to, firstly, protect those target children. Researchers will used it to gather data on how vaccine deployment works in the field and things like where the vaccine perhaps doesn’t work so well. This is because things come up when vaccines are delivered at scale that no one can plan for in more controlled settings.

Such issues can include things like whether people are capable of adhering to the dosing schedule which, in this case, is spread across four separate deliveries. In particular it will be interesting to see how many children receive the fourth dose of the vaccine at age two, or whether there is a substantial drop-off after the first three deliveries, which occur in rapid succession during the child’s first five to nine months of life.

The pilot scheme will also be able to see how national governments can coordinate the vaccine programs and what support may be needed in rollout, something that is just as vital as developing the vaccine itself.

“Delivering the world’s first malaria vaccine will help reduce the burden of one of the most pressing health challenges globally,” Dr. Thomas Breuer, Chief Medical Officer of GSK Vaccines, a company that has been a key partner in this vaccine development process, said in a press release. “This novel tool is the result of GSK employees collaborating with their partners, applying the latest in vaccine science to contribute to the fight against malaria. We look forward to seeing the results of the pilot, and in parallel, are working with WHO and PATH to secure the vaccine’s sustained global health impact in the future.”

While the vaccine will not eradicate malaria overnight, Malawi’s rollout could, historically speaking, be a landmark in the fight against malarial disease. International health bodies will be watching the scheme closely and perhaps even with optimism as the potential for a malaria-free future comes that little bit closer.

Photo credit: Getty Images.

36 comments

Dr. Jan H
Dr. Jan Hyesterday

thanks

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Alice S
Barbara S13 days ago

Thanks for posting

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Dr. Jan Hill
Dr. Jan H21 days ago

thanks

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Martha P
Martha P22 days ago

thank you

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Lorraine Andersen

That would be fantastic. Thanks for sharing.

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Debbi W
Debbi W22 days ago

Wonderful news!

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Benjamin F
Benjamin Fisher22 days ago

Awesome!

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Marie P
Marie P23 days ago

Glad to hear. TYFS

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Anne Moran
Anne Moran23 days ago

Be quick about it,, and save these little vulnerable children...

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Sandra V
Sandra Vito23 days ago

Thanks

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