The majority of the 430,000 that die of malaria every year are children in Africa.
The first notably effective vaccine for malaria is set to make its debut in Ghana, Kenya, and Malawi in 2018 after years of extensive clinical trials and could save tens of thousands of lives lost to the disease annually. The vaccine, which is called Mosquirix, was developed by British drugmaker GlaxoSmithKline and completed the Phase III trial in 2014 and has been working to get approved to be used in Africa since then.
According to the latest statistics from the World Health Organization, 492,000 people died from malaria in 2015, most of them young children in Africa, and 212 million people were infected that year. Though this is a 29% reduction in the mortality rate since 2010, this is still one of the largest health problems to plague the world today.
In the clinical trials, the vaccine proved to be partially effective and would need to be given in 4 doses, posing the risk that some children will not receive all 4 doses and that even if they completed the doses they could still be infected with the deadliest form of malaria. However, by following the methods and procedures for administering the drug, Matshidiso Moeti, the WHO’s African regional director, is confident that it could help immensely.
“Combined with existing malaria interventions, such a vaccine would have the potential to save tens of thousands of lives in Africa,” Moeti said.
The vaccine will be tested on the ground in the three African countries that are participating in the WHO pilot program to determine the effectiveness and necessity of the drug in the countries. The program will assess whether the drug’s stated protective effect on children aged 5 to 17 months can be replicated in a real-life setting. The WHO wants to reduce mortality rates by 90% by the year 2030, and is looking into whether to add this vaccine to its list of core package of recommended measure for malaria prevention.
These three countries were selected for a variety of reasons, including having high malaria mortality rates, existing prevention methods like widespread bed net use, and well-functioning immunization programs. At least 120,000 children in each of the three countries will receive the vaccine, which has taken decades of work and millions of dollars just for the development. The WHO announced in November 2016 that it had full funding for the first phase of the pilots, which amounted to 52 million from three different organizations for the first 4 years of the program.
“The slow progress in this field is astonishing, given that malaria has been around for millennia and has been a major force for human evolutionary selection, shaping the genetic profiles of African populations,” Kathryn Maitland, professor of tropical pediatric infectious diseases at Imperial College London, wrote in The New England Journal of Medicine in December. “Contrast this pace of change with our progress in the treatment of HIV, a disease a little more than three decades old.”
Some blame greed and pharmaceutical companies for this slow development, as the countries that are hit the hardest by this disease also have little to no money to fork up for these drugs. When compared to HIV, which affects people in Western countries that earn more money, those drugs can be put on the market and sold for a high retail price. For malaria drugs, however, it’s likely that non-profits will be footing the bill to buy the drugs and distribute them, meaning pharmaceuticals will be forced to lower the prices to make it affordable. Now that Mosquirix will be making its way to Africa, hopefully the trial will prove successful and other drug companies can start expounding on the existing vaccine to make improvements and save even more lives.