The World Health Organization recommended on Wednesday that children across Africa should be given the world’s first malaria vaccine.
After a meeting of the vaccination advisory group of the United Nations Health Authority, WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus spoke of “a historic moment”.
“Today’s recommendation offers a glimmer of hope for the continent bearing the heaviest disease burden, and we expect many more African children to be protected from malaria and grow into healthy adults,” said Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Africa Director.
WHO said its decision was based on the results of ongoing research in Ghana, Kenya and Malawi, which has persecuted more than 800,000 children since 2019.
The malaria vaccine known as Mosquirix was developed by GlaxoSmithKline in 1987. Although it is the first vaccine to be approved, it is only about 30% effective, requires up to four doses, and protection wears off after just a few months.
However, given the extremely high levels of malaria in Africa – where the majority of the world’s more than 200 million cases per year and 400,000 deaths occur – scientists say the vaccine could still have a major impact.
“This is a big step forward,” said Julian Rayner, director of the Cambridge Institute for Medical Research, who was not part of the WHO decision. “It’s an imperfect vaccine, but it will still save hundreds of thousands of children from dying.” Rayner said the vaccine’s impact on the spread of mosquito-borne disease was still unclear, but cited coronavirus vaccines as an encouraging example.
“The past two years have given us a very nuanced understanding of the importance of vaccines in saving lives and reducing hospital stays, even if they don’t directly reduce transmission.”
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Sian Clarke, co-director of the Malaria Center at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said the vaccine is a useful addition to other agents for the disease that may have become depleted after decades of use, such as bed nets and insecticides.
“In some countries where it gets very hot, children just sleep outside so they can’t be protected by a bed net,” said Clarke. “So of course, if they have been vaccinated, they will still be protected.”
Clarke added that there has been little significant progress in the fight against malaria in recent years. “If we want to reduce the burden of disease now, we need something else.”