As the World Health Organization marks World Malaria Day, April 25, Malawi has launched the pilot phase of Africa's first ever malaria vaccine.
The WHO chose Malawi, alongside Ghana and Kenya, because of the high numbers of malaria cases and treatment facilities. The pilot phase aims to vaccinate 360,000 children per year, 120,000 of them in Malawi. But, while the vaccine is expected to save thousands of lives, its effectiveness is limited.
Health officials at Malawi's Likuni Community hospital are giving children injections of Africa's first malaria vaccine. The mosquito-spread disease kills more than 430,000 people per year, most of them African children.
It took more than 30 years and nearly $1 billion to develop a vaccine against malaria. Known as RTS-S, the vaccine is only helpful for children younger than 2 who receive four doses, at the ages of 5 months, 6 months, 7 months and 22 months. Michael Kayange is Malawi's deputy director of health.
“After we did clinical trials, we had several age groups that we looked at. This vaccine was seen to be very, very effective in children aged between 5 months and 22 months. In other age groups it didn't show any usefulness,” he said.
A long line of mothers brought their children to Tuesday's launch of the pilot phase of the World Health Organization-approved vaccine. Malawi's mothers like Fanny Kaphamtengo are excited about the vaccine's potential.
She says malaria is a deadly and killer disease for not only children but adults as well. Although she has other children who are not vaccinated, Kaphamtengo says she feels lucky to have her new baby protected from malaria.
Fewer cases, less anaemia
Testing between 2009 and 2014 showed the vaccine reduces clinical malaria cases by 40 percent and severe malaria cases by 30 percent. But it also caused a 60 percent reduction in severe malaria anaemia, the most common reason children die from malaria.
Kayange says Malawians will still need to take precautions to avoid their children getting ill from malaria.
“This new vaccine is just an additional tool to the control and elimination of malaria in the country,” he said. “So, whoever will get this vaccine, all the children who get the vaccine, we encourage them to use other malaria prevention methods like sleeping under mosquito nets, going to hospital quickly when they have fevers and body aches.”
Millions could be saved
Despite its only partial protection from malaria, the vaccine could save millions of lives in Malawi, Kayange said. The pilot project will be launched in Ghana and Kenya next week.
The WHO will use the results to inform policy advice before the vaccine is rolled-out in other malaria-hit countries.