Researchers say an experimental malaria vaccine tested in Africa is safe and effective in babies, who are most at risk of dying of the disease. If all goes well, experts say the drug could become available in the next few years to protect infants and young children from the mosquito-borne illness. VOA's Jessica Berman reports.

Malaria kills more than one million people, each year, and makes 350 million others seriously ill. Most of the victims are small children and infants in Africa, where the mosquito-borne illness is endemic.

Now, researchers have announced the results of a clinical trial in Mozambique of an experimental vaccine. Two-hundred fourteen infants, ten to eighteen weeks of age, were tested.

Researchers found that - compared to those who were not vaccinated - the drug reduced the number of new infections in the infants by 65 percent, in a three month period.

Investigators say the vaccine also reduced the number of infants who became critically ill by 35 percent.

Ripley Ballou, of GlaxoSmithKline, is the maker of the experimental vaccine. Ballou notes that an earlier clinical trial involving one-to-four year olds showed the vaccine reduced the number of new infections by 45 percent.

"This is very encouraging news and I think it really sets the stage for the next step, which is to begin a phase three trial, a registration study of this vaccine in the second half of next year," said John McNeill, director of research and development for PATH Malaria Vaccine Initiative, which has provided financial support for development of the malaria vaccine.

The final clinical phase would involve as many as 16,000 children in seven African countries.

If all goes as well as expected, SmithKline plans to apply for regulatory approval, which could make the vaccine available within the next five years.

McNeill expects the three-shot vaccine regimen would be given to infants and children at the same time they receive other routine vaccinations against childhood illnesses.

"These are opportunities for immunizing kids that really provide us the chance to get the vaccine to the largest number of kids that need it," he said.

The results of the malaria vaccine trial are published in the British medical journal The Lancet.