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World’s first malaria vaccine is being tested in Malawi, two other African countries to follow

WORLD’S first malaria vaccine to partially protect children against malaria has been launched in Malawi, targeting children below two years of age.

According to a statement by the World Health Organisation (WHO), released on its website on Tuesday, the vaccine named  “RTS,S” will be made available to children from five months to two years of age.

Malawi is the first of three countries in Africa chosen in a landmark pilot programme to roll out the vaccine, aiming for 120,000 children. The other two countries, Ghana and Kenya, will introduce the vaccine in the coming weeks. The pilot programme is designed to generate evidence and experience to inform WHO policy recommendations on the broader use of the RTS,S malaria vaccine.

The vaccine which has been in the making for thirty years is described by the WHO as the first and the only (to date) vaccine that has demonstrated it can significantly reduce malaria in children.

In the clinical trials, according to the statement, the vaccine was found to prevent approximately 4 in 10 malaria cases, including 3 in 10 cases of life-threatening severe malaria.

“Malaria is a constant threat in the African communities where this vaccine will be given. The poorest children suffer the most and are at highest risk of death,” said Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa, in the statement released on Tuesday.

“We know the power of vaccines to prevent killer diseases and reach children, including those who may not have immediate access to the doctors, nurses and health facilities they need to save them when severe illness comes.

“This is a day to celebrate as we begin to learn more about what this tool can do to change the trajectory of malaria through childhood vaccination,” she added.

The WHO-coordinated pilot programme is a collaboration with ministries of health in Ghana, Kenya and Malawi and a range of in-country and international partners, including PATH, a non-profit organization, as well as GSK, the vaccine developer and manufacturer, which is donating up to 10 million vaccine doses for this pilot.

The programme at Malawi, Ghana and Kenya will look at reductions in child deaths and vaccine safety in the context of routine use. It will also look at the vaccine uptake, including whether parents bring their children on time for the four required doses.  The vaccine needs to be given four times – once a month for three months and then a fourth dose 18 months later.

Malaria has remained one of the world’s leading killer diseases, according to WHO. It kills a child every two minutes. Most of the deaths are in Africa where  more than 250 000 children die from the disease every year.

Though there have been measures to control malaria in the past years including mosquito nets, WHO said progress has stalled and even reversed in some areas. “We need new solutions to get the malaria response back on track, and this vaccine gives us a promising tool to get there,” said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “The malaria vaccine has the potential to save tens of thousands of children’s lives.”

According to the World Malaria Report released on November 19, 2018 by the WHO, Nigeria was identified among the ten  highest-burden countries in Africa that saw a significant increase in cases of malaria. Of the 10, Nigeria, Madagascar and the Democratic Republic of Congo had the greatest rise, reporting an extra half a million cases each.

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