WHO announces first global malaria vaccine for children at risk

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has recommended the use of a malaria vaccine, which has been 30 years in the making, for children at risk in Africa, where the disease is most prevalent. It kills more than 260 000 children on the continent each year. 

The UN health body this week recommended the use of the RTS,S/AS01 (RTS,S) malaria vaccine among children in sub-Saharan Africa and in regions with moderate to high malaria transmission.

“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 Ghebreyesus in a live media broadcast on Wednesday. 

Ghebreyesus, who began his career as a malaria researcher, said that the vaccine “changes the course of public health history”. 

“Using this vaccine, in addition to existing tools to prevent malaria, could save tens of thousands of young lives each year”.

The life-threatening disease, caused by the female Anopheles mosquito, is preventable and curable. 

In 2019, about 229-million cases of malaria were recorded worldwide; of these, 409 000 people died of the disease, according to the WHO’s 2020 report. Of this total death toll, 274 000 (67%) were children under the age of five.

The WHO’s recommendations for the widespread use of the vaccine follows the results from an ongoing pilot programme in Ghana, Kenya and Malawi, which has been running since 2019. The programme reached more than 800 000 children. 

Based on the pilot programme, the WHO recommends the use of the RTS,S vaccine for the prevention of malaria in children living in regions with moderate to high transmission (as defined by the WHO). The vaccine is to be administered in four scheduled doses to children from the age of five months. 

Trials to further develop the vaccine continue, because the first vaccine shows a limited efficacy, reducing the threat to life in 39% of malaria cases, and 29% of severe malaria cases. However, Ghebreyesus noted the vaccine will be used “in addition to existing tools” to prevent malaria and increase its efficacy.

“Community demand for the vaccine is strong. It has broad reach to children, including the most vulnerable. It is safe. It significantly reduces life threatening, severe malaria. And we estimated [it] to be highly cost effective,” said Ghebreyesus. 

The vaccine, designed in Africa by African scientists, will be globally available, but its value in sub-Saharan Africa will be immense. 

Dr Matshidiso Moeti, the WHO regional director for Africa, welcomed the vaccine: “For centuries, malaria has stalked sub-Saharan Africa, causing immense personal suffering. 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.”

Moeti further described the vaccine as a beacon of hope for the continent, saying that “many more African children will be protected from malaria and grow into healthy adults”.

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Eunice Stoltz
Eunice Stoltz is a general news reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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