The World Health Organization began testing the world's first malaria vaccine in Malawi, one of three African nations where it is being used to immunize children up to two years old.
The pilot program, which will expand to Ghana and Kenya in coming weeks, is 32 years in the making. That is how long it has taken to develop the only licensed vaccine to protect against the mosquito-spread parasitic disease that kills about 435,000 people every year, most of them children under five years old in Africa.
The U.N. health agency said RTS,S is the first, and to date the only, vaccine that has demonstrated it can significantly reduce malaria in children. In clinical trials, it was found to protect only about four-in-10 children who are immunized, but it also reduced cases of life-threatening severe malaria by nearly a third.
WHO"s pilot program for testing the malaria vaccine aims to reach about 360,000 children a year across the three countries. The organization said the nations' health ministries will decide where to deliver the vaccine, but will focus on areas with moderate-to-high malaria transmission where it can have the greatest impact.
Health ministries select trial areas
Scientists at the U.S.-operated Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Silver Spring, Maryland began testing RTS,S in 1987. Over the next three decades, RTS,S, also known by its trade name Mosquirix, was developed by GlaxoSmithKline, or GSK, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation at a cost of US$700 million.
It was approved by the European Medicines Agency in 2015, after a 15,000-person clinical trial found that four doses of RTS,S over one and a half years reduced by 36% the number of malaria episodes in young children.
That set up the possibility of distributing the vaccine to children particularly in some of the poorest regions.
“Malaria is a constant threat in the African communities where this vaccine will be given. The poorest children suffer the most and are at highest risk of death,” said Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, a physician from Botswana who serves as WHO's regional director for Africa.
“We know the power of vaccines to prevent killer diseases and reach children," she said in a statement, "including those who may not have immediate access to the doctors, nurses and health facilities they need to save them when severe illness comes."
For the testing in Malawi, Ghana and Kenya, children in selected areas are being given the vaccine in three doses between five and nine months of age and a fourth dose around their second birthday. Others involved in the pilot program include PATH, a non-profit organization, and GSK, which is donating up to 10 million vaccine doses.
“Delivering the world’s first malaria vaccine will help reduce the burden of one of the most pressing health challenges globally,"said Dr. Thomas Breuer, chief medical officer of GSK Vaccines. “We look forward to seeing the results of the pilot, and in parallel, are working with WHO and PATH to secure the vaccine’s sustained global health impact in the future.”