‘Ground-breaking’ malaria vaccine given green light by WHO experts

·4-min read
‘Ground-breaking’ malaria vaccine given green light by WHO experts

Children across much of Africa are to be offered a vaccine for malaria as efforts to stamp out the deadly disease are ramped up.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommended widespread use of the RTS,S malaria vaccine - developed by British pharmaceutical giant GSK - for children in sub-Saharan Africa and in other regions with moderate to high levels of malaria transmission.

More than 260,000 African children die from malaria every year.

The global health body said that the decision “changes the course of public health history”.

The jab has already been delivered to more than 800,000 children through an ongoing pilot programme across Ghana, Kenya and Malawi.

A baby from the Malawi village of Tomali is injected with the world’s first vaccine against malaria in a pilot programme (AP)
A baby from the Malawi village of Tomali is injected with the world’s first vaccine against malaria in a pilot programme (AP)

WHO said that the jab has a strong safety profile and is feasible to deliver.

It said that the jab could save tens of thousands of lives a year.

WHO director general, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said: “This is a historic moment. The long-awaited malaria vaccine for children is a breakthrough for science, child health and malaria control.

“Using this vaccine on top of existing tools to prevent malaria could save tens of thousands of young lives each year.”

Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO's regional director for Africa, added: “We have long hoped for an effective malaria vaccine and now for the first time ever, we have such a vaccine recommended for widespread use.

“Today’s recommendation offers a glimmer of hope for the continent which shoulders the heaviest burden of the disease and we expect many more African children to be protected from malaria and grow into healthy adults.”

It has been estimated that the vaccine, which has been in the making for three decades, could save “millions” of lives.

The jab requires four doses to be given to children aged five months and older.

The WHO said the jab provides a 30 per cent reduction in deadly severe malaria.

Gavi, the vaccine alliance, said the pilots showed that the vaccine can be successfully rolled into existing immunisation programmes.

Professor Sir Brian Greenwood, from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who has played a pivotal role in malaria vaccination trials and research since the inception of the jab, said: “With malaria still a major cause of death, especially among children in Africa, this decision has the potential to save millions of young lives.

“The RTS,S vaccine does not provide complete protection, but this decision is testament to the global health community's drive and vision to find a way forward.

“As part of a tailored approach it has great potential to reduce death and illness in high burden areas, especially when combined with other interventions such as seasonal malaria chemoprevention and bed nets, and be a huge boost to malaria control efforts.

“It’s taken a long time to get to this momentous day but the journey has been worth it.”

GSK said that when the jab is given in combination with seasonal administration of antimalarial drugs, the vaccine “lowers clinical episodes of malaria, hospital admissions with severe malaria, and deaths by around 70 per cent”.

Thomas Breuer, chief global health officer at the pharmaceutical giant, said: “This long-awaited landmark decision can reinvigorate the fight against malaria in the region at a time when progress on malaria control has stalled.

“Both real-world evidence and clinical trial data show that RTS,S, alongside other malaria prevention measures, has the potential to save hundreds of thousands of lives.”

Gavi said it will work with other partners on how to finance the new malaria vaccination programme.

Its chief executive Dr Seth Berkley said: “Today marks a historic achievement in our fight against malaria.

“The vaccine is an important additional tool to help control this disease alongside other interventions, such as bed nets, and especially when delivered seasonally in combination with antimalarial medication.”

GSK said it is “working with partners to develop solutions to ensure equitable and long-term access to the RTS,S vaccine for the people who need it”.

The company donated 10 million doses for the pilot scheme, which began in 2019 to test the feasibility of the rollout, and it has also committed to supply up to 15 million doses annually at no more than five per cent above the cost of production.

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