Health

Malawi is first nation to use malaria vaccine to help kids: UN

The vaccine, known as Mosquirix, was developed by GlaxoSmithKline and was approved by the European Medicines Agency in 2015.

The vaccine protects around one-third of children who get immunized

A mother holds her baby receiving a malaria vaccine in 2009 as part of a trial at the Walter Reed Project Research Center in Kombewa, Western Kenya. (Karel Prinsloo/The Associated Press)

The World Health Organization says Malawi has become the first country to begin immunizing children against malaria, using the only licensed vaccine to protect against the mosquito-spread disease.

Although the vaccine only protects about one-third of children who are immunized, those who get the shots are likely to have less severe cases of malaria. The parasitic disease kills about 435,000 people every year, the majority of them children under five in Africa.

"It's an imperfect vaccine but it still has the potential to save tens of thousands of lives," said Alister Craig, dean of biological sciences at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, who is not linked to WHO or the vaccine.

Craig said immunizing the most vulnerable children during peak malaria seasons could spare many thousands from falling ill or even dying.

The vaccine, known as Mosquirix, was developed by GlaxoSmithKline and was approved by the European Medicines Agency in 2015. A previous trial showed the vaccine was about 30 per cent effective in children who got four doses, but that protection waned over time. Reported side-effects include pain, fever and convulsions.

Pedro Alonso, director of WHO's malaria program, called the vaccination rollout a "historical moment," noting that it was significantly more difficult to design a vaccine against a parasite as opposed to a bacterium or virus.

He acknowledged the vaccine was flawed but said the world could not afford to wait for a better option. "We don't know how long it will take to develop the next-generation vaccine," he said. "It may be many, many years away."

Bold move

In the meantime, he said, the stalled progress against malaria demanded new tools now. Resistance is growing to medicines that treat the disease, while mosquitoes are becoming more resistant to insecticides.

In addition, funding for malaria efforts has plateaued in recent years.

Alonso said similar vaccination programs would begin in the coming weeks in Kenya and Ghana, with the aim of reaching about 360,000 children across the three countries. GlaxoSmithKline is donating up to 10 million vaccine doses.

Other experts warned the vaccination programs should not divert limited public health funds from inexpensive and proven tools to curb malaria such as bed nets and insecticides.

"This is a bold thing to do, but it's not a silver bullet," said Thomas Churcher, a malaria expert at Imperial College London.

"As long as using the vaccine doesn't interfere with other efforts, like the urgent need for new insecticides, it is a good thing to do."

Craig said one of health officials' biggest challenges could be convincing parents to bring their children for repeated doses of a vaccine that only protects about a third of children for a limited amount of time.

More commonly used vaccines, like those for polio and measles, work more than 90 per cent of the time.

"This malaria vaccine is going to save many lives, even if it is not as good as we would like," Craig said. "But I hope this will kick-start other research efforts so that the story doesn't end here."

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.