The launch of the world’s first Malaria vaccine in Malawi, to be followed in the coming weeks in Ghana and Kenya, is offering a ray of hope for Nigeria, which currently leads in the global malaria burden.
Nigeria accounted for about 55 million malaria cases, which represented 25 percent of cases worldwide according to the 2018 World Malaria report. Five countries accounted for nearly half of all malaria cases worldwide, with Nigeria accounting for 25 percent of this, followed by the Democratic Republic of the Congo with 11 percent, Mozambique five percent, India four percent, and Uganda four percent. Fifteen countries in sub-Saharan Africa and India carried almost 80 percent of the global malaria burden.
This week, the World Health Organisation (WHO) welcomed the Government of Malawi’s launch of the world’s first malaria vaccine, in what has been described as a landmark pilot programme. The country is the first of three in Africa in which the vaccine, known as RTS,S, will be made available to children up to 2 years of age.
The malaria vaccine pilot aims to reach about 360,000 children per year across the three countries. Ministries of health will determine where the vaccine will be given; they will focus on areas with moderate-to-high malaria transmission, where the vaccine can have the greatest impact.
Following a request by WHO for expressions of interest, the pilot countries were selected from among 10 African countries. Key criteria for selection included well-functioning malaria and immunization programmes, and areas with moderate to high malaria transmission.
The 10 highest burden countries in Africa reported increases in cases of malaria in 2017 compared with 2016. Of these, Nigeria, Madagascar and the Democratic Republic of the Congo had the highest estimated increases, all greater than half a million cases. In contrast, India reported 3 million fewer cases in the same period, a 24 percent decrease compared with 2016.
“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 Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General. “The malaria vaccine has the potential to save tens of thousands of children’s lives.”
As WHO reiterates, malaria remains one of the world’s leading killers, claiming the life of one child every two minutes. Most of these deaths are in Africa, where more than 250,000 children die from the disease every year. Children under five are at greatest risk of its life-threatening complications. Worldwide, malaria kills 435,000 people a year, most of them children.
The WHO-coordinated pilot programme is a collaborative effort with ministries of health in Ghana, Kenya and Malawi and a range of in-country and international partners, including PATH, a non-profit organization, and GSK, the vaccine developer and manufacturer, which is donating up to 10 million vaccine doses for this pilot.
Thirty years in the making, RTS,S is the first, and to date the only, vaccine that has demonstrated it can significantly reduce malaria in children. In clinical trials, the vaccine was found to prevent approximately 4 in 10 malaria cases, including 3 in 10 cases of life-
threatening severe malaria, according to the WHO.
“Malaria is a constant threat in the African communities where this vaccine will be given. The poorest children suffer the most and are at highest risk of death,” said Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa. “We know the power of vaccines to prevent killer diseases and reach children, including those who may not have immediate access to the doctors, nurses and health facilities they need to save them when severe illness comes.”
“This is a day to celebrate as we begin to learn more about what this tool can do to change the trajectory of malaria through childhood vaccination,” she added.