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First-Ever Malaria Vaccine To Begin Tests Next Year

First-Ever Malaria Vaccine To Begin Tests Next Year

The end of one of the world’s deadliest preventable diseases may finally be on the horizon. This week, just in time for World Malaria Day, the World Health Organization announced it will begin testing the first-ever malaria vaccine in parts of Africa next year.

The WHO and regional partners will begin distributing the injectable vaccine — RTS,S — in Ghana, Kenya, and Malawi in 2018, specifically targeting young children, who are most vulnerable to the deadly strains of the mosquito-borne disease.

British pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline developed the vaccine, also known as Mosquirix, and conducted clinical trials between 2009 and 2014. The vaccine proved only partially effective in the clinical trial phase, but it’s still the first malaria vaccine approved by top regulatory authorities, including the European Medicines Agency.

If the pilot tests prove successful, it would be a big step toward rooting out one of the world’s most widespread and deadly diseases. For Africa, which suffers the brunt of global malaria cases, it’s welcome news a long time coming. In 2015, the year of the latest available data, the WHO estimated 212 million people around the world contracted malaria and 429,000 died. Some 90 percent of those cases and deaths took place in Africa.

“The prospect of a malaria vaccine is great news. Information gathered in the pilot will help us make decisions on the wider use of this vaccine,” said Matshidiso Moeti, the WHO’s regional director for Africa. “Combined with existing malaria interventions, such a vaccine would have the potential to save tens of thousands of lives in Africa,” she added.

A vaccine could also be of use in other parts of the world in years to come. Warming temperatures are widening the areas suitable for the mosquitoes that carry the virus; scientists expect malaria (and other mosquito-borne diseases) could spread as far as Northern Europe.

A coalition of international organizations and humanitarian groups including Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance are bankrolling the pilot program’s first phase, running from 2017 to 2020, for a price tag of $49.2 million.

The global health community made big strides in combating malaria in recent decades even without a vaccine. In the past 15 years, malaria fatalities have fallen by 62 percent thanks to increased awareness, better treatments, and disease prevention measures such as insecticides and mosquito nets.

Photo credit: TONY KARUMBA/AFP/Getty Images