• The RTS,S vaccine trains the immune system to attack the malaria parasite, which is spread by mosquito bites.
• Kenya and Ghana will introduce the vaccine in the coming weeks.
There's another tool in the anti-malaria toolbox — a long-awaited vaccine that can save tens of thousands of children's lives.
But it's not perfect.
In clinical trials, the vaccine was found to prevent about four in 10 malaria cases, including three in 10 cases of life-threatening severe malaria.
It also must be administered four times — once a month for three months and then a fourth dose 18 months later. Not every rural family is used to taking children to health centres for regular injections.
RTS,S vaccine trains the immune system to attack the malaria parasite, which is spread by mosquito bites. It is a recombinant protein-based vaccine.
The pilot RTS,S vaccine has been launched in Malawi, which has the highest cases of malaria. It was selected for the pilot alongside Kenya and Ghana.
It will be introduced in Kenya in coming weeks and will be made available to children aged two years.
Malaria remains one of the world’s leading killers, claiming the life of one child every two minutes, according to WHO.
Most of these deaths are in Africa, where more than 250,000 children die from the disease every year.
According to the World Health Organization, though there have been tremendous gains from bed nets and other measures in the last 15 years, 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,” WHO director-general Tedros Ghebreyesus said.
“The malaria vaccine has the potential to save tens of thousands of children’s lives,” he added.
The DG said the most recent annual figures show global malaria cases are no longer falling, sparking concerns about its resurgence.
WHO notes the three countries were picked because they already run large programmes to tackle malaria, including the use of bed nets, yet still have high numbers of cases.
The vaccine has been work-in-progress for more than three decades, with scientists from drugs company GSK creating it in 1987.
RTS,S is the first, and to date, the only, vaccine that has demonstrated it can significantly reduce malaria in children.
This stage of the trial is expected to be completed by 2030.
The pilot programme will generate evidence and experience to inform WHO policy on the broader use of the vaccine. It will look at reductions in child deaths; vaccine uptake, whether parents take their children on time for the four doses; and vaccine safety.
The vaccine is a complementary malaria control tool – to be added to the core package of routine use of insecticide-treated bed nets, indoor spraying with insecticides and timely malaria testing and treatment.
“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,” WHO regional director for Africa Dr Matshidiso Moeti 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,” Moeti said.
Children under five years are at greatest risk of its life-threatening complications. Worldwide, malaria kills 435 000 people a year, most of them children.