SEATTLE, Washington — In November, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that parts of sub-Saharan Africa will be part of a pilot program for the first-ever distribution of a malaria vaccine that targets the region’s most prevalent strain. It is the first vaccine developed for anti-malaria purposes that is expected to yield significant positive results.
The vaccine, known as RTS,S or Mosquirix, was developed by The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, GlaxoSmithKline Biologicals and the PATH Malaria Vaccine Initiative. The funding for the pilot program came from the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, the GAVI Vaccine Alliance and Unitaid.
The WHO notes that the vaccine is the most advanced malaria vaccine ever manufactured and available for this pilot effort. The effort will be rolled out in three of the seven countries that participated in clinical trials for the vaccine during the last several years. Those trials have had a success rate between 31.5 and 39 percent, depending on whether the malaria diagnosis was considered severe or clinical.
According to the U.S. State Department, almost half of the world’s population is affected in some way by malaria. There are more than 200 million cases of malaria annually, with 81 percent of these in Africa. Of those who died as a result of contracting malaria, 90 percent hailed from sub-Saharan Africa, with more than 85 percent under the age of five.
Nigeria is particularly affected by malaria. As the State Department notes, Nigeria accounts for the highest incidence and mortality associated with malaria than any other nation in the world. Because Nigeria didn’t participate in the clinical trial for the malaria vaccine, it’s unlikely to be included in the pilot program. However, the issue of malaria in Nigeria provides an important case to highlight malaria incidence rates, as well as extol time-tested, non-vaccine malaria control methods.
A primary challenge for combatting malaria in a country like Nigeria is the high poverty rate. In fact, as the State Department notes, “An estimated 65 percent of Nigeria’s population lives in poverty and poverty is a major factor in malaria prevention and treatment.” A 2001 Harvard review of health policy for malaria in Nigeria concluded that poverty is a serious threat to the treatment and containment of malaria. Many communities cannot afford conventional controls like mosquito nets and do not have access to quality health centers.
According to the WHO, those conventional preventive and treatment methods are tantamount to containing malaria rates around the world, even with the advent of cutting-edge vaccines like the one being deployed in the sub-Saharan pilot program. Such measures include the use nets and bedding, regular testing for malaria and prompt treatment of confirmed cases. The WHO recommends increased funding and awareness of these measures, because they are still the cheapest and most effective.
Additionally, the WHO emphasizes that the RTS,S malaria vaccine is only a complementary measure to the more conventional treatment methods. In its report on the vaccine’s development, the WHO concludes that “the need for high-quality, safe and effective drugs to treat malaria will continue regardless of any development of a first-generation malaria vaccine.”
– James Collins