The World Health Organization has announced that trials of a new malaria vaccine will take place in three African countries – Kenya, Ghana and Malawi. They have been selected for their high prevalence of malaria and strong existing immunization programs for other diseases. The announcement was made ahead of the U.N.’s World Malaria Day Tuesday – and the chosen theme for this year is ‘a push for prevention’.
Malaria remains one of the world’s deadliest diseases – killing close to half a million people every year, mostly in Africa. So the testing of a new vaccine called RTSS has been greeted as a great step forward. It’s hoped that 360,000 children will be vaccinated between 2018 and 2020 in Kenya, Ghana and Malawi.
The World Health Organization’s Regional Director Dr. Matshidiso Moeti made the announcement Monday in Nairobi.
“We are very appreciative that GSK the pharmaceutical company that is developing the vaccine will provide this for free of charge for this pilot," she said. "And the vaccine will be assessed as the complementary intervention in Africa that can be added to our existing tool box of proven preventive diagnostic and treatment measures.”
While a malaria vaccine would be an invaluable tool, other methods remain vital in preventing malaria.
Dr. Thomas Churcher of Imperial College London uses mathematical modeling to highlight the best way of killing of blocking the main vector that transmits malaria – the mosquito.
“Currently the majority of control is through the use of bed nets, but there’s an increasing fear that mosquitoes are becoming resistant to some of the insecticide on those bed nets," he said. "And so therefore there’s a chance that a control that works today might not work as well in the future. And so we need new ways of killing mosquitoes, new types of bed nets, new types of drugs, new types of vaccines.”
Global efforts to reduce transmission have led to a two-thirds reduction in malaria deaths between 2000 and 2015. It’s hoped the development of a vaccine will get us one step closer to one day eradicating the disease, says Churcher.
“Hopefully one day we will have a vaccine that’s good enough to be that silver bullet. The current vaccine can do an awful lot but it’s not going to completely halt malaria transmission," he said. "The recent studies show that it’s partially effective, and that that effectiveness wears off quite quickly over time.”
The $50 million trials in Ghana, Kenya and Malawi are being funded through a network of NGOs and global institutions. Far greater investment will be needed to roll the vaccine out globally – if the pilots prove successful.