A breakthrough in the fight against malaria has been announced by the World Health Organization (WHO), which has endorsed a new vaccine that can reduce the mortality rate of the disease by more than 50%. The vaccine, called RTS,S, is the first of its kind to show such high efficacy and safety in large-scale trials involving more than 800,000 children in sub-Saharan Africa, where malaria is endemic and kills more than 250,000 children every year.
The vaccine works by stimulating the immune system to produce antibodies that target the malaria parasite when it enters the bloodstream. The vaccine is administered in four doses, starting from five months of age, and provides protection for at least four years. The WHO estimates that the vaccine could prevent more than 100,000 deaths per year if it is widely deployed in malaria-endemic regions.
The WHO’s recommendation is based on the results of a pilot program that began in 2019 and involved Ghana, Kenya and Malawi. The program aimed to test the feasibility, impact and safety of the vaccine in real-world settings, and to generate evidence to inform future policy decisions. The program was supported by a coalition of partners, including Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, UNITAID, WHO, PATH and GlaxoSmithKline, the manufacturer of the vaccine.
The pilot program showed that the vaccine was well accepted by communities and health workers, and that it had a positive impact on reducing malaria cases and hospitalizations. The program also demonstrated that the vaccine could be delivered through existing health systems, alongside other routine childhood immunizations. The vaccine was found to be safe and well tolerated, with no serious adverse events related to the vaccine.
The WHO’s endorsement paves the way for wider use of the vaccine in sub-Saharan Africa and other regions where malaria is prevalent. The WHO has called on countries and donors to support the scale-up of the vaccine, which could save millions of lives and reduce the burden of malaria on health systems and economies. The WHO has also urged continued investment in research and development of new tools and strategies to eliminate malaria, which remains one of the world’s deadliest infectious diseases.