NAIROBI – After years of research and testing, a potential vaccine for malaria is approaching the stage where it could be available to the public.
The vaccine, called RTS,S, is meant to combat the deadliest strain of the malaria parasite, the Plasmodium falciparum. About 90 percent of deaths due to malaria are in sub-Saharan Africa, where the Plasmodium falciparum is most prevalent. An estimated 77 percent of malarial deaths in that region are of children under age five.
More than 200 million people per year contract malaria. It is estimated that more than 600,000 people per year die from malaria, mostly children. The disease is spread by the bite of infected mosquitoes. Parasites move from the mosquitoes to the bitten person, where the parasites latch onto the host’s red blood cells and cause fever. Left untreated, malaria causes anemia, organ damage and eventually death.
Right now, malaria transmission is avoided with the use of insecticide-treated bed nets and artemisinin combination therapy. These measures have reduced the occurrence of malaria by 45 percent in all age groups since 2000.
Unfortunately, insecticide and drugs are only a stopgap measure. There is growing concern about drug and insecticide resistance, which would make this new vaccine all the more vital.
RTS,S would be a huge step in reducing the incidence of malaria all over the world. RTS,S is designed to train the body to react to the Plasmodium falciparum parasite as soon as it enters the body. The malaria parasite congregates and multiplies in the liver before infecting the general bloodstream. In theory, RTS,S could stop the parasite from successfully colonizing the host’s liver, halting the progression of the disease. It would also be the first vaccine against a parasite instead of a virus or bacterium.
Although it is still unavailable commercially, RTS,S just completed Phase III testing in Burkina Faso, Gabon, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique and the United Republic of Tanzania. Phase III is the last stage before commercial production. If the test is deemed to have gone well, RTS,S will be licensed for general use. Preliminary results are looking hopeful. In the test group of 15,460 children and infants administered the RTS,S vaccine, incidence of malaria decreased substantially.
This vaccine could be a huge asset in the fight against malaria in sub-Saharan Africa. If it becomes commercially available, people in malaria-stricken areas will be one step closer to long, healthy lives.
– Marina Middleton