The World May Finally Have a Malaria Vaccine That Works

This could be one of the biggest achievements in modern medicine.
Brad Bergan
The insertion of a syringe with a vaccine load.Sean_Warren / iStock

For thousands of years, malaria has wrought havoc. But it could be nearing its end.

We may finally have an effective vaccine against malaria.

A novel drug called RTS,S has finally received approval from the World Health Organization, and will soon roll out across sub-Saharan Africa, according to an initial report from the BBC.

The vaccine's effectiveness was proven six years ago, and now it's finally ready to save lives.

New Malaria vaccine could save 'tens of thousands' of lives

The vaccine's pilot programs took place in Ghana, Kenya, in addition to Malawi, and the World Health Organization's (WHO's) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said this marked a "historic day," adding that "tens of thousands of young lives could be saved" by the vaccine every single year, according to the BBC report. Malaria is an extremely dangerous parasite that invades and body, subsequently destroying blood cells to reproduce and spread via blood-sucking mosquitoes. There have been ways to reduce the spread, like drugs that kill the parasite, insecticides that kill the means of transfer (the mosquitoes), and bed nets to prevent the parasitic bugs from injecting or sucking the malaria parasite into and out of human bloodstreams.

But there remain roughly 230 million cases of malaria linked to 400,000 deaths from the vicious illness, roughly 95% of which is centered in Africa, where more than 260,000 kids have died from infection in 2019 alone. Immunity takes years upon years of repeated infection to build immunity to malaria, and this immunity is only minimal, merely reducing your chances of becoming extremely ill from contraction. The recently approved vaccine was put through a pilot program, during which Kwame Amponsa-Achiano assessed the vaccine for effectiveness and feasibility, according to the report. "It is quite an exciting moment for us, with large scale vaccination I believe the malaria toll will be reduced to the barest minimum," said Amponsa-Achiano, in the report.

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The malaria vaccine takes four doses, administered at a young age

Amponsa-Achiano regularly contracted malaria as a child, and this spurred his will to become a doctor in Ghana. "It was distressing, almost every week you were out of school, malaria has taken a toll on us for a long time," he said in the BBC report. There exist more than 100 variants of the malaria parasite, but the RTS,S vaccine specifically targets the most common and deadly one in the entire continent of Africa: plasmodium falciparum. Back in 2015, trials showed that the vaccine can prevent four in 10 malaria cases, leading to a sharp drop of one-third in the number of kids needing blood transfusions. But not everyone had full confidence in the novel vaccine, since it takes four full doses to become fully effective.

The first three doses are administered one month apart from one another, at five, six, and seven months old, with a final booster shot given at the age of roughly 18 months, according to the report. The results of the pilot revealed that the vaccine is safe, and linked to a 30% reduction in severe cases of the illness, and it showed no substantially negative side effects apart from those expected from routine vaccines. Most crucially, it's cost-effective, which means it has the potential to be accessible by official bodies capable of helping the general populations most at-risk in Africa. This is a gigantic step in the right direction in the fight to end malaria. Time will tell whether the vaccine proves effective against future variants of the parasite.