The World Health Organisation has given its backing to a vaccine against malaria, a landmark moment for medical science that could save the lives of tens of thousands of children across the African continent every year.
“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.
The RTS,S vaccine, also known as Mosquirix, will be rolled out widely following a successful pilot programme in Ghana, Kenya and Malawi.
A parasitic disease spread via mosquito bites, malaria kills about half a million people a year, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa and mostly children under the age of five. Despite being one of the oldest known parasitic diseases, it remains extremely expensive and difficult to treat.
Not only a first for malaria, the vaccine developed by pharma giant GSK is the first ever developed against a parasite and is specifically designed for young children’s immune systems.
"For centuries, malaria has stalked sub-Saharan Africa, causing immense personal suffering,” said Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO’s Regional Director for Africa. “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.”
"We've been looking for a malaria vaccine for over 100 years now, it will save lives and prevent disease in African children,” Dr Pedro Alonso, the director of the WHO’s Global Malaria Programme, said.
One modelling study determined that the vaccine could prevent 5.4 million cases and save the lives of at least 23,000 children in its early years of deployment.
Because of the parasitic nature of the disease, people can be infected repeatedly without developing immunity, with infected children suffering six or more episodes of infection annually.
Beyond the deaths, malaria is considered a major economic and social burden on some African countries, requiring massive amounts of attention from medical services and causing economic hardship as repeatedly infected patients are often too ill to work.