October 12, 2021
THE World Health Organisation (WHO) has given the go-ahead for widespread use of the RTS,S/AS01 (RTS,S) malaria vaccine among children in sub-Saharan Africa and in other regions with moderate to high malaria transmission.
The recommendation is based on results from an ongoing pilot programme in Ghana, Kenya and Malawi that has reached more than 800,000 children since 2019.
But malaria remains a primary cause of childhood illness and death in sub-Saharan Africa, with more than 260,000 African children under the age of five dying from the disease annually.
This is even though since 2000 global malaria deaths have fallen by more than half while many parts of the world have seen the elimination of the disease.
However, the WHO now believes that the vaccine will be a game-changer in the fight against malaria in Africa.
“This is a historic moment. The long-awaited malaria vaccine for children is a breakthrough for science, child health and malaria control,” said WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
“Using this vaccine on top of existing tools to prevent malaria could save tens of thousands of young lives each year.”
The WHO Regional Director for Africa, Dr Matshidiso Moeti, said: “For centuries, malaria
has stalked sub-Saharan Africa, causing immense personal suffering.
“We have long hoped for an effective malaria vaccine and now for the first time ever, we have such a vaccine recommended for widespread use.
“Today’s recommendation offers a glimmer of hope for the continent which shoulders the heaviest burden of the disease and we expect many more African children to be protected from malaria and grow into healthy adults.”
Two years ago, the WHO began a pilot programme to roll out RTS,S in Ghana, Kenya and Malawi.
Since then, it has been learned that there is a strong community demand for the vaccine, which can be delivered through child health clinics and readily reach a high number of children, according to Dr Tedros.
He said this would enable the most vulnerable children to gain access to preventive malaria measures, adding about the vaccine, “It’s safe; it significantly reduces life-threatening severe malaria and we estimate it to be highly cost-effective.”
Acknowledging that the vaccine “is a powerful new tool…like the COVID-19 vaccines, it’s not the only tool”.
Dr Tedros added: “Vaccination against malaria does not replace or reduce the need for other measures, including bed nets, or seeking care for fever.”
The vaccine is the result of 30 years of research and development by GSK with support from a network of African research centres.
“I thank the researchers in Africa who generated the data and insights that informed this decision – this is a vaccine developed in Africa, by African scientists, and we’re very proud,” Dr Tedros said.
“I thank the ministries of health of Ghana, Kenya and Malawi for their leadership in embarking on these pilot programmes, which have continued despite COVID-19.”
The pilot programme will continue in the three countries to understand the added value of a fourth vaccine dose, and to measure longer-term impact on child death, with GSK donating 10 million doses.
Dr Tedros cautioned: “We still have a very long road to travel. But this is a long stride down that road.
“This vaccine is a gift to the world, but its value will be felt most in Africa, because that’s where the burden of malaria is greatest.”