Finally A Malaria Vaccine: A Monumental Discovery
Health and Gender Policy Brief #136 | By: S. Bhimji | October 13, 2021
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Photo taken from: Oxford Medical Sciences Division
While much of the talk these days is about covid-19, the parasite that causes malaria is far more sophisticated and insidious than coronavirus. The malaria parasite has evolved to escape the immune system and it also has a complicated life cycle that spans across humans and mosquitoes. Even when it is inside the body, it escapes surveillance and different forms affect different organs.
Malaria is caused by a parasite that is spread from the bite of blood-sucking mosquitoes. Once inside the body, the parasite breaks down human blood cells to replicate. Even after repeated infections, building immunity to malaria can take years; and even then the immunity is not complete.
According to the WHO report in 2019, close to 50% of the world’s population resides in areas at high risk for transmission of malaria. Each year there are over 220 million clinical cases of malaria, resulting in 445,000 deaths- most of them in children. For at least a century, researchers have been trying to develop a preventive treatment; and finally, a vaccine has become available.
This new vaccine, referred to as RTS, S was developed 6 years ago and in initial studies was shown to be effective. Now the WHO is considering large-scale mass vaccination across most of Sub-Saharan, East, and West Africa.
Malaria is a serious illness and besides death, it can cause brain damage, stillbirths in pregnant women, kidney failure, breathing problems, and much more. Many individuals are left with residual deficits for the rest of their life.
While many drugs have been developed to fight malaria, most of them have developed resistance to the parasite. At least 9 dozen types of malaria parasites exist but the RTS, S primarily targets the most deadly one found in Africa, plasmodium falciparum.
Malaria has been one of the biggest menaces to humanity for eons, mostly killing infants and babies. Finally, after 100 years of exhaustive research, scientists have discovered the vaccine called RTS, S. Even though only 40% effective, the vaccine is hailed as a monumental discovery.
The initial pilot immunization programs in Kenya, Ghana, and Malawi revealed that the vaccine did work and saved lives. Now the WHO thinks it is time to roll out the vaccine for a large-scale vaccination of African children. It is hoped that this vaccine will save tens of thousands of children each year, who would have otherwise perished.
Early trials showed that the vaccine was effective in preventing 4 out of 10 cases of malaria and even lowering the need for blood transfusion in children. The vaccine requires 4 doses to be effective, given soon after birth. So far no adverse effects of the vaccine have been reported and it is cost-effective.
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The malaria vaccine is very specific in its actions. It only targets the sporozoite form of the parasite, the stage between being bitten by a mosquito and the entrance of the parasite into the liver. That is why this vaccine is only 40% effective but this is considered a significant discovery as it paves way for the development of more effective vaccines. And even if the vaccine is only 40% effective, it will still save 160,000 lives each year.
The malaria vaccine is still not going to replace the other measures for controlling the disease such as mosquito nets, wearing appropriate garments, and getting rid of stagnant water. For now, the vaccine will be limited for use in Africa because it is not effective against other forms of malaria found in Latin America.
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