The World Health Organization (WHO) has recommended the extension of the use of a malaria vaccine used in three African countries participating in a pilot project that is considered safe, despite relatively low efficacy.
The RTS,S vaccine was developed by a platform of African scientists and is designed to combat the disease that causes 94% of its deaths in sub-Saharan Africa.
“This vaccine has the potential to save tens of thousands of young lives. We have made incredible progress in the last two decades, malaria cases have halved, but globally cases remain too high, with 200 million cases annually and over 400,000 deaths,” said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, quoted by Efe news agency.
Ghana, Malawi and Kenya were the first three countries to introduce the vaccine, in 2019, with 2.3 million vaccines administered and 800,000 children receiving at least one dose.
“It is the best possible investment ever made in public health,” said WHO Global Malaria Programme Director Pedro Alonso.
Approval of the use of the vaccine will allow it to be incorporated into the existing toolkit for malaria control, such as insecticide-treated nets, prophylactic drugs, diagnosis and treatment, but it will not replace them.
This pilot in the three African countries confirmed the feasibility of administering the four doses required for this vaccine, its role in reducing child mortality and the possibility of integrating it into national immunization programmes without major complications.
According to reports by Efe, the project has also shown that the availability of the vaccine has not led to families in endemic areas neglecting the use of mosquito nets or had a negative impact on the coverage of other vaccines.
Research has shown that this vaccine can reduce the number of severe malaria cases that can lead to death by 30%.
The expansion of the RTS,S vaccine will require further investment, and the current WHO approval will allow the Gavi platform to add the vaccine to its portfolio and consider investing in this product for the poorest countries.
The World Malaria Report revealed that there were 229 million episodes of malaria and 400 000 deaths from the disease in 2019.
Over 90% of these deaths occur in Africa and the majority – over 265,000 – in young children.
RTS,S is the first and only vaccine shown to reduce malaria in children, including severe life-threatening malaria, related hospital admissions and the need for blood transfusions.
The RBM Partnership to End Malaria welcomed the WHO decision, calling it a “landmark recommendation”.
“The WHO announcement is a historic milestone for the global malaria community, and the RBM Partnership congratulates the commitment and efforts of many partners over three decades to achieve this milestone in innovation,” said Abdourahmane Diallo, chairman of the organization’s executive board, quoted in a statement posted on its portal.
The organization noted that over the past two decades, with increased funding, political commitment and the development of “innovative tools”, the global burden of malaria has been “dramatically reduced, preventing 1.5 million cases and saving 7.6 million lives”.
Malaria, which is transmitted by a mosquito, can be contracted several times during a lifetime and can also compromise the development and future life of children when contracted at an early age.