Currently Malaria is the largest cause of childhood illness and death in sub-Saharan Africa, killing more than 260,000 under-fives every year. For context that means one child dies of malaria every two minutes.
Malaria is caused by the Plasmodium parasite, which is spread by female Anopheles mosquitoes. They are commonly known as “night-biting” mosquitoes as they typically bite between dusk and dawn.
Once the parasite enters the host’s bloodstream it travels to the liver, where it develops for a short period before re-entering the bloodstream and attacking the red blood cells.
In a non-immune individual, symptoms usually appear 10 to 15 days after the bite and include fever, headache, chills and diarrhoea. If not treated within 24 hours, the disease can progress to severe illness and often leads to death.
Developing an effective vaccine has proved to be a serious challenge as the parasite is far more complex than a virus or bacteria.
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Now, following on from a successful pilot programme involving giving at least one dose to more than 800,000 children across Ghana, Kenya and Malawi, the World Health Organization (WHO) is recommending the widespread rollout of the RTS,S malaria vaccine among children aged five months or older living in sub-Saharan Africa.
This marks the first time a vaccine for malaria has been recommended for use across large swathes of the continent, where the disease is endemic.
“This is a historic moment. The long-awaited malaria vaccine for children is a breakthrough for science, child health and malaria control,” said WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “Using this vaccine on top of existing tools to prevent malaria could save tens of thousands of young lives each year.”
To date, more than 2.3 million doses of the vaccine have been administered. The team behind the vaccine report a 30 per cent reduction in deadly malaria, even in areas where insecticide-treated nets are widely used and there is good access to diagnosis and treatment.
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The vaccine has proved safe, with no significant side effects, and has been welcomed by families.
Discussions about funding a broader rollout of the vaccine will now take place amongst the global health community, with individual countries making the decision on whether to adopt the vaccine as part of their national malaria control strategies.
"For centuries, malaria has stalked sub-Saharan Africa, causing immense personal suffering,” said Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa. “We have long hoped for an effective malaria vaccine and now for the first time ever, we have such a vaccine recommended for widespread use.
“Today’s recommendation offers a glimmer of hope for the continent which shoulders the heaviest burden of the disease and we expect many more African children to be protected from malaria and grow into healthy adults.”
Jason is the commissioning editor for BBC Science Focus. He holds an MSc in physics and was named Section Editor of the Year by the British Society of Magazine Editors in 2019. He has been reporting on science and technology for more than a decade. During this time, he's walked the tunnels of the Large Hadron Collider, watched Stephen Hawking deliver his Reith Lecture on Black Holes and reported on everything from simulation universes to dancing cockatoos. He looks after the magazine’s and website’s news sections and makes regular appearances on the Science Focus Podcast.