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New malaria vaccine could save millions

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Experts are now optimistic about the possibility of the world’s first malaria vaccine. The good news comes after a new trial showed that a vaccine had cut the number of cases of malaria after 18 months by 46 per cent in children aged five to 17 months.  Younger infants aged six to 12 weeks also benefited with a 27 per cent malaria reduction when compared to unvaccinated children. The findings were presented at the sixth Pan-African Conference of the Multilateral Initiative on Malaria in Durban, South Africa.

The vaccine known as RTS,S was developed by GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) with the non-profit Path Malaria Vaccine Initiative (MVI) and supported by funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. GSK now intends to submit a regulatory application to the European Medicines Agency for approval for use.

These findings are timely as drug-resistant strains of malaria have been surfacing in high-risk populations throughout the world. In 2012, researchers found drugs used to treat malaria have become less effective and over 20 per cent of patients have begun to show treatment resistance.

The malaria advances made in the last decade could stall with less effective drugs and resistance. Malaria currently kills around 660 000 people a year and approximately one child will die every minute. This ranks malaria as one of the top three disease killers. Approximately 90 per cent of all malaria deaths occur in pregnant women and children under the age of five. 

“Many millions of malaria cases fill the wards of our hospitals. Progress is being made with bed nets and other measures, but we need more tools to battle this terrible disease,” said Halidou Tinto, a lead investigator from Burkina Faso.

Insecticide-treated nets, indoor residual sprays, malaria drugs and killing of mosquito breeding grounds are other important ways to prevent and treat malaria. However, vaccination may become the best way to prevent malaria, especially in high-risk children and pregnant women.

To illustrate this point, studies across sub-Saharan Africa have found that within households possessing at least one insecticide-treated net, only 55 per cent of children under age five were found to have slept under a net the previous night.

Indoor residual sprays (IRS) are recommended by the World Health Organization but they unfortunately remain underutilized. IRS requires proper timing, frequent spraying and are most effective when used in combination with insecticide-treated nets. If approved, the vaccine will add another level of protection with the potential to save millions of people and billions of dollars.

Dr Cory Couillard is an international health columnist that works in collaboration with the World Health Organization’s goals of disease prevention and global health care education. Views do not necessarily reflect endorsement.

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