First malaria vaccine rollout in kids could cut burden

First child to be vaccinated
Picture shows the first child to be vaccinated in Mitundu in Lilongwe, Malawi. Copyright: Photo supplied by the Ministry of Health, Malawi

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  • RTS,S was shown in a previous trial to protect nearly 40 per cent of children
  • Malawi is the first of three African nations to introduce the vaccine
  • The rollout demonstrates the commitment to fight in Africa, says an expert

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[LILONGWE, MALAWI] The first rollout of a malaria vaccine in Malawi could lessen the burden of the disease in children under two years of age in Sub-Saharan Africa, researchers say.

Malaria kills over 250, 000 children in Africa every year, according to the WHO.
“The vaccine is a complementary intervention. This means that it’s not complete on its own,” says Michael Kayange, deputy director of Malawi’s National Malaria Control Programme and trial lead.

“However, together with other interventions it will protect children from malaria.”

“The Malawi teams will be analysing it on many different levels in order to identify how and in whom it is effective.”

Terrie Taylor,  Malawi’s Research Programme

Kayange tells SciDev.Net that the vaccine’s efficacy and safety trial began in May 2009 and ended in early 2014.

He says that earlier that smaller trials showed nearly 39 per cent of children five to 17 months old who received the vaccine getting protected from malaria.

The rollout will see about 120,000 children under two years in Malawi get doses of the vaccine, known as RTS,S, in the next four years.

The vaccine trains the immune system to attack the malaria parasite, which is spread by mosquito bites, Kayange, adds.

The vaccine trial will be done in four dose schedule: at five, six, seven and 22 months,” explains Kayange. “The trial will take place at selected sites and is designed to generate evidence and experience to inform policymakers on the broader use of the vaccine.”

The country is the first of three in Africa to introduce the vaccine. Ghana and Kenya will in the coming weeks also make available the vaccine to children under two years of age, according to a statement from the WHO published this week (23 April) when the trial began.

Terrie Taylor a professor at US-based Michigan State University and a malaria researcher at Malawi’s Research Programme tells SciDev.Net that the science community globally is looking forward to the results of this large-scale “real world” trial of RTS,S.

“The Malawi teams have been working hard to organise the pilot programme, and will be analysing it on many different levels in order to identify how and in whom it is effective,” Taylor says.

Miriam Laufer, a professor of paediatrics at University of Malawi's College of Medicine, tells SciDev.Net that progress against malaria has stalled for years.  

She adds that the addition of a vaccine, even if it is not the perfect vaccine, may be able to push some of the highest burden regions especially the Sub-Saharan Africa towards lower malaria burden and even allow them to start thinking about elimination.

“But also, the decision to move forward with this project represents a powerful spirit of collaboration among international partners to develop and implement the research needed to inform public health decisions,” explains Laufer, who is also the associate director for malaria research at University of Maryland School of Medicine in the United States.

Matshidiso Moeti, the WHO regional director for Africa, in the WHO statement, echoed Laufer’s comments, adding that the disease is a constant threat in African communities where “the poorest children suffer the most and are at highest risk of death”.
This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Sub-Saharan Africa English desk.