GENEVA – Malawi has become the first country to roll out a vaccine for malaria, a deadly disease caused by infected mosquito bites that claims over half a million lives every year, the World Health Organization said Tuesday.
The African nation will be joined by Ghana and Kenya in this innovative program that will vaccinate children under the age of two using the RTS, S vaccination.
“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,” Doctor Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa said.
“We know the power of vaccines to prevent killer diseases and reach children, including those who may not have immediate access to the doctors, nurses and health facilities they need to save them when severe illness comes.”
The pilot program will target children under the age of two who will be administered the vaccination in four doses.
WHO selected these areas due to the high rates of the disease’s transmission and for their reliable immunization programs to support the vaccination drive adequately.
Malaria is caused by bites of infected female mosquitoes of the Anopheles variety which transmit parasites that can kill those who become infected.
These small insects on average kill more people in a year than wars do, the Bill Gates Foundation said in a statement.
Africa is the region in the world most affected by this disease with up 92 percent of malaria cases in 2017 registered on the continent.
Half of the world is at risk of malaria although most deaths occur in Sub Saharan Africa with children under the age of five, pregnant women and people with HIV/AIDS at particular risk of dying of the disease.
“Less than a century ago, families everywhere lived in fear of a mosquito bite. Now 75 percent of all malaria cases occur in just 15 countries. The partners fighting this disease won’t rest until we’ve reached every case of malaria while saving as many lives as possible along the way,” Bill Gates, the creator of Microsoft and philanthropist tweeted last week.
Some 219 million people contracted the disease in 2017, of which nearly half a million died. Of those, 60 percent of fatalities were children.
In the long term, malaria can severely affect the intellectual health of children and lead to disabilities.
According to the WTO the RTS, S vaccine is the only one to have empirically proven to significantly reduce the risk of malaria among children.
“We have seen tremendous gains from bed nets and other measures to control malaria in the last 15 years, but progress has stalled and even reversed in some areas. We need new solutions to get the malaria response back on track, and this vaccine gives us a promising tool to get there,” Doctor Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General said.
“The malaria vaccine has the potential to save tens of thousands of children’s lives,” Adhanom Ghebreyesus added.
Malaria is a preventable disease and much headway has been made since 2000 with deaths being reduced by half, according to the Gates Foundation.
However, in recent years funding to control the proliferation of the disease has stagnated.
There is also evidence to suggest that malaria parasites have begun to develop resistance urging the need for a robust funding drive to boost research and good immunization programs like the RTS, S vaccine pilot WHO are developing in Africa.
Gates describes the microscopic parasites responsible for malaria as “the world’s deadliest shapeshifters,” due to their ability to transform and trick human immune systems so they are always one step ahead of antibodies as they take on different “shapes,” as the disease progresses.
The Gates Foundation is backing other innovative projects such as one that could see mosquitoes being genetically modified in order to reduce the number of parasite-infected insects.
This gene editing concept would target only dangerous mosquitoes, given that of the over 3,000 species only five are linked to malaria, so this very precise approach would only “attack” the mosquitoes that carry malaria parasites.
WHO has outlined an ambitious strategy for the elimination of malaria cases and mortality rates by 90 percent between 2016 and 2030.