In a time for groundbreaking vaccines, the WHO recommends the widespread use of the malaria vaccine for children who are at high risk
By Kamryn Sobel
On October 6th, the World Health Organization recommended a new defense against the deadly malaria disease. In regions with high transmission rates amongst children, the recommendation is set for the population. Specifically, this is based on a pilot program in Ghana, Kenya, and Malawi, in which malaria has reached more than 800,000 innocent children since 2019. With a new tool to help combat this vicious disease, thousands of children will be kept from a lethal fate.
A background on malaria: malaria is caused by a parasite that infects Anopheles mosquitoes, which then feed on humans. Typically, these mosquitoes are females that are infected by a person with malaria parasites. When searching for its next meal, the parasites mix with the saliva of the mosquito and are transmitted to the next person. Although it cannot be spread like a cold or flu due to the parasites being found in human red blood cells, malaria can be transferred through organ transplant, blood transfusion, or objects contaminated with blood.
Unfortunately, with malaria being a leading cause of death amongst children in the sub-Saharan Africa area, at least 260,000 children 5 and under die annually. In the United States, to compare, around 2,000 cases per year are reported of the malaria disease, while internationally, 229 million cases were estimated in 2019 by the World Health Organization. Malaria is rare in warm climates, as many of these reported cases are from those traveling to and from countries where transmission rates are high.
Finding a way to create the malaria vaccine was a lengthy process. Due to this disease transmitting parasites, it becomes a much more complex task in the making of an effective vaccine. Parasites can change and adapt to their environment, for they are organisms. For multiple decades, particularly since the successful human trial in 1996, there have been many trials starting from adults and making their way to younger children due to safety precautions. Now, many are rejoicing after the WHO came out with the endorsement after years of experiments and tragedy.
According to the immunization and malaria global advisory bodies from the WHO, it is recommended “that in the context of comprehensive malaria control, the RTS,S/AS01 malaria vaccine be used for the prevention of P. falciparum malaria in children living in regions with moderate to high transmission as defined by WHO. RTS,S/AS01 malaria vaccine should be provided in a schedule of 4 doses in children from 5 months of age for the reduction of malaria disease and burden.”
Alongside the malaria vaccine, other tools such as the insecticide-treated nets have resulted in over 90% of children benefiting from at least one malaria intervention. Some of the other key findings of many from the vaccine pilots include more 2.3 million doses have been administered to 3 African countries, 30% reduction rates have been reported in severe malaria cases, and that the vaccine is cost-effective in regions with high transmission rates.
With the hunt for this vaccine being considered one of the most important research projects in public health, specifically 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.
Melanie Moyer '22,