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African Health Officials Prepare for New Malaria Vaccine

Officials are meeting in Ghana to discuss ways to get an early start on administering malaria vaccines in Africa. The vaccine is currently on trial in six African countries. Malaria is a major cause of death for children in sub-Sahara Africa. Efam Dovi has more on the story for VOA, from the Ghanaian capital, Accra.

The Accra meeting, one of several in Africa, involves officials of the World Health Organization, U.N. Childrens Fund, Ghanaian health authorities, as well as other development partners.

Participants are discussing measures to ensure the vaccines are administered as soon as approved.

Hundreds of Ghanaian children between five and 17 months are taking part in the Ghana trial, which started in September.

Dr. Ruth Owusu is a member of the research team supervising the Ghana trials. She says the vaccine looks promising, but says it is still too early to tell if it will work.

"This study we are doing now is not looking at the efficacy, it is looking at the safety," she said. "But soon after this study, once we think its safe enough to be used, there will be a larger study looking at the efficacy. This will go on in about 10 countries. I think it looks promising, but its still early to give any definite statement that yes, this is a vaccine that will definitely work, but I think its promising."

There is normally a long time-lag between licensing a vaccine and when it is administered in Africa.

Two-day workshops are being held in several African countries to help national health authorities to evaluate issues that will aid in introducing the vaccine.

Dr. Owusu explains why it is important for countries to be prepared before a vaccine is licensed.

"It requires logistics, it requires even soliciting for donor support because these vaccines cost a lot and the government alone cannot bear the cost," she said. "It requires putting systems in place, it may require upgrading the current the immunization system. If it has not been planned before the vaccine is ready to come out, then it may take another five to 10 years before the vaccine is given to children."

There are about 15 malaria vaccines in clinical trials, most in the early stages of being tested. Officials say the leading vaccine could be available as early as 2011.

This program's vaccine has been tested and proved successful in protecting a large group of adult volunteers and children in other countries.

Malaria thrives in hot temperatures that enable the parasite that causes the disease to mature more quickly in the bodies of the mosquitoes that carry it. Over the years, the parasite has become more resistant to known medications and new drugs have been tried to combat the disease.