MALARIA DAY

Vaccine best hope against malaria

When used alongside existing measures it has the potential to save thousands of young lives

In Summary

• The vaccination programme is targeting the under-five children, who are the most vulnerable to malaria. 

• According to the WHO, in 2018 this age group accounted for about 67 per cent of malaria deaths globally

A nurse administers a malaria vaccine to a child in Western Kenya
A nurse administers a malaria vaccine to a child in Western Kenya
Image: D POLAND/PATH

Malaria is the second biggest killer disease in Kenya based on the 2020 Economic Survey.

Last year, more than four million malaria cases were confirmed in public health facilities. According to the WHO, an estimated 3.4 billion people are at risk of contracting malaria, and 400,000 die of it yearly.

In recent years, Kenya has made tremendous progress in the fight against malaria through the scale-up of insecticide-treated mosquito nets, indoor residual spraying, and appropriate diagnosis and treatment through a combination of therapies.

In September 2019, the Ministry of Health, through the National Vaccines and Immunisation Programme, took a bold step and launched the malaria vaccine in Homa Bay, one of the eight counties with the heaviest burden of malaria nationwide. Notably, the country joined Malawi and Ghana in launching the childhood malaria vaccination programme.

The vaccination programme is targeting the under-five children, who are the most vulnerable to malaria.  According to the WHO, in 2018 this age group accounted for about 67 per cent of malaria deaths globally with the bulk of the malaria deaths being registered in sub-Saharan Africa. In Kenya, 70 per cent of the population is at risk of malaria. Malaria remains a major killer of children.

The malaria vaccine, known as RTS,S acts against Plasmodium falciparum, the deadliest malaria parasite globally and the most prevalent in sub-Saharan Africa. The vaccine is being given in four doses; three doses between six months and nine months of age, and the fourth dose at 24 months.

The RTS,S vaccine, when administered as required, will help reduce cases of malaria and severe malaria, including hospital admissions. In the long run, it is expected to decrease child deaths and relieve our healthcare systems.

The vaccine, when used alongside existing measures, such as the routine use of insecticide-treated bed nets, indoor spraying with insecticides and timely access to malaria testing and treatment, has the potential to save thousands of young lives in Kenya.

Currently, the latest reports from WHO indicate that more than 1.7 million doses of the world’s first malaria vaccine have been administered in Kenya, Ghana and Malawi, benefitting more than 650,000 children with additional malaria protection.

The report further states that the number of children reached in this relatively short period indicates strong community demand for the vaccine as well as the capacity of the countries’ child immunisation programmes to deliver the vaccine on a novel schedule of (four doses up to about age 2 years).

At the end of this pilot phase being implemented in Kenya, Ghana and Malawi, the WHO will convene in October this year and provide an advisory to the relevant stakeholders on the wider use of the malaria vaccine in Kenya and across sub-Saharan Africa.

We do hope that as a country, when the WHO makes this call, we’ll be the first in line to scale up the childhood vaccination programme in all our counties, especially the ones with the greatest burden of the malaria disease.

This programme will enable us to be right on course towards eliminating the burden of malaria in our country and reaching the target of zero malaria.

Jacob Shabani is assistant professor and interim chair, Department of Family Medicine, Aga Khan University Medical College, East Africa