By Tido von Schoen-Angerer, Executive Director of Access to Essential Medicines Campaign, Doctors Without Borders
Last week saw the announcement of a new weapon in the fight against malaria. GlaxoSmithKline, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the PATH Initiative together announced on Tuesday early results of a clinical trial in Africa of a malaria vaccine that cuts the rate of developing the disease by half.
The development of the world’s first vaccine against malaria, and indeed any parasite, is an extraordinary scientific breakthrough. Vaccines have helped us bring down death rates from a number of diseases that threaten lives in developing countries, like measles and meningitis, and have even led to the eradication of some killer diseases like smallpox.
Close to 800,000 people die from malaria every year, and almost all are children in Africa. A malaria vaccine that works would be a major breakthrough. But while the latest advance toward the development is scientifically important, there are several reasons to be cautious about the difference this vaccine could make, on the basis of current results.
Firstly, protection is low. Only around half of children who got the malaria vaccine were protected from developing malaria, and only around a third were protected against severe malaria, the type that kills. In other words, two out of every three children are still exposed to contracting potentially fatal severe malaria, even after being vaccinated.
Secondly, the current vaccine offers only short-term protection. It doesn’t give a child permanent protection from malaria; it just offers up a temporary guard that then wears off after about a year. Given that the threat of contracting malaria is ever present in some parts of the world (on average, people in some parts of Africa may get malaria up to six times a year), this raises practical problems; vaccinating children in Africa, even for the most basic diseases that do provide permanent protection, like measles, is proving difficult enough.