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The World’s First Malaria Vaccination Is Here

It’s not perfect and it may be inconvenient but it’s an important milestone in saving millions of lives.

by Shamani Joshi
25 April 2019, 11:47am

US Army medical researchers provide screenings for malaria and HIV, as also immunizations and pharmacy prescriptions at a local school in Kenya. Photo: Rick Scavetta, U.S. Army Africa Public Affairs/Flickr

Parasites are known to literally suck the life out of you, so in a big step towards finding some relief this World Malaria Day (which happens to be today), the world’s first malaria vaccination has just been released. The World Health Organisation (WHO) announced on Tuesday that the potentially malaria mitigating vaccine known as RTS,S will be rolled out to about 3,60,000 children in three African countries. The immunization process began in Malawi on Tuesday, while Ghana and Kenya are all set to follow based on the first rollouts’ success rate.

The vaccine, also known as Moquirix, has been in development since 1987. While the vaccine realistically only provides partial protection, with clinical trials finding that the vaccine prevented approximately four in 10 malaria cases, it is still a better solution than having no protection at all.

It is a huge step forward in dealing with the new complications in finding a cure for this human parasite virus, and according to the WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, it can potentially save 10,000 lives of children, especially in Africa where more than 2,50,000 children succumb to this disease every year.

Symptoms of this mosquito-borne disease include fever, chills, and even anaemia, seizures, and respiratory problems in severe cases. It has always been difficult to find a solution since it is genetically more complex than a virus and, unlike other viruses, doesn't guarantee any immunity even if a person gets infected once. While malaria vaccine efforts haven’t always been a priority—with the “lack of a traditional market”, which basically means that it mainly affects the poorest areas in the world, reducing chances of profitability for pharmaceutical companies—the research funded by philanthropists, the WHO, and national governments is an important step in the right direction. This is “a pro-poor vaccine” that is designed specifically to help young children in countries like Africa. Currently, 10 African countries have been selected to kick off the immunization process, and will eventually be expanded to other affected parts of the world based on its success. And since Southeast Asia is the second largest contributor to the global malaria burden, it’s hopefully only a matter of time before the country has a shot at fighting against the disease that puts 1.6 billion people in the continent at risk.

While preventive measures like insecticide-dipped bed-nets and indoor spraying have proven effective and there has been a 62 percent decrease in the number of deaths between 2000 to 2015, the number of registered cases shot up to 219 million in 2017 compared to 217 million in 2016. This is because the disease primarily spreads through the female Anopheles mosquito, which has over time grown more resistant to the drugs and insecticides created to fight malaria. The effects of climate change have also increased the range of such disease-carrying mosquitos and can potentially become a risk in places that were never exposed to it before.

Currently, the vaccine is a complementary malaria control measure to be prescribed by the WHO as a pilot programme designed to gather data that will further impact WHO policy recommendations on its broader use. This will look at reductions in child deaths, what kind of vaccine uptake would be involved, including whether parents bring their children on time for the four required doses and procedures for vaccine safety in the context of routine use.

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