The announcement of the first-ever malaria vaccine not only inspires hope in the battle against one of the planet's most pernicious diseases but also underscores the need to attack this scourge on multiple fronts, says the head of the U.S. President's Malaria Initiative, which this week rolled out an ambitious five-year plan aimed at taming what he described as "the oldest pandemic."
Malaria, a parasitic infection spread by mosquitoes, kills hundreds of thousands of people every year. Most of the victims are young children, and most malaria cases occur in sub-Saharan Africa.
While malaria is not endemic to the United States, the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden considers anti-malaria efforts a priority, said Dr. Raj Panjabi, who was appointed as PMI's global malaria coordinator in February. PMI, led by the U.S. Agency for International Development, is a U.S. government program dedicated to fighting the disease.
"It's the right thing to do," he told VOA. "There are too many people — over 400,000 — who die every year from malaria. Most of them are children. In fact, a child dies every two minutes from this disease. And over 200 million cases still occur every year. This is the oldest pandemic. It is a pandemic that has killed perhaps more children than any other, certainly in sub-Saharan Africa.
"So that's the first reason: It's just the right thing to do. It's the moral thing to do. We have the tools, the medicines, the tests. Now we have a vaccine that can help us save lives. The second reason is that it is in the interest of the United States for other countries to succeed."
A new vaccine, announced this week by the World Health Organization, "is a breakthrough for science, child health and malaria control," said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. "Using this vaccine on top of existing tools to prevent malaria could save tens of thousands of young lives each year."
This four-dose vaccine, developed for children under 2 and tested in three African countries, was found to prevent 30% of severe cases.
Those figures may sound disappointing, but this vaccine is only one tool among several, explained Ashley Birkett, director of the Malaria Vaccine Initiative at PATH, a global organization that promotes health equity and that took part in the 30-year development of the vaccine.
"Thirty percent sounds like a modest number, but when you look at the magnitude of the problem and the fact that we have over 260,000 children dying from malaria a year and a vaccine that can build on the other tools and bring another way of offering protection, it has the potential to have quite a significant impact," Birkett said.
That, Panjabi said, is why the President's Malaria Initiative this week unveiled an ambitious billion-dollar-a-year plan aimed at saving another 4 million lives and preventing 1 billion infections over the next five years.
"Medical breakthroughs are not enough," Panjabi said. One tactic in the plan, he said, is to hire, train and equip local residents as community health workers who can bring tests and medicines to people's homes. Another is to continue work on vaccine efficacy and development.
So why did it take scientists 30 years to develop this one vaccine? VOA asked Panjabi.
"One of the reasons it's been more challenging is because parasites are frankly, well, evil geniuses," he said. "The malaria parasite has about 5,300 genes. The COVID-19 virus has only 10 genes.
"And malaria has a very complex life cycle; it goes between mosquitoes and humans. And so it's challenging to train the immune system when you have a pathogen that has multiple stages within the bloodstream. And so that's one of the real reasons that it's challenging to develop a vaccine for a parasite. And why it's a remarkable achievement that this has been accomplished. It's been decades in the making."