The World Health Organisation (WHO) on Wednesday endorsed the world’s first malaria vaccine. The global health body said that it should be given to children across Africa in the hope that it will spur stalled efforts to curb the spread of the parasitic disease.
The WHO recommendation is for RTS,S – or Mosquirix – a vaccine developed by British drugmaker GlaxoSmithKline.
“This is a vaccine developed in Africa by African scientists and we’re very proud,” said WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
What is Mosquirix?
According to European Medicines Agency, Mosquirix is a vaccine that is given to children aged 6 weeks to 17 months to help protect against malaria. It also helps protect against infection of the liver with the hepatitis B virus, but European Medicines Agency warns that the vaccine should not be used only for this purpose.
The vaccine was developed by GlaxoSmithKline in 1987. However, it does face challenges: Mosquirix requires up to four doses, and its protection fades after several months.
Still, scientists say the vaccine could have a major impact against malaria in Africa.
Since 2019, 2.3 million doses of Mosquirix have been administered to infants in Ghana, Kenya and Malawi in a large-scale pilot programme coordinated by the WHO. The majority of those whom the disease kills are aged under five.
How is Mosquirix used?
Mosquirix is given as a 0.5 ml injection into a muscle of the thigh or in the muscle around the shoulder (the deltoid). The child is given three injections with one month between each injection.
A fourth injection is recommended 18 months after the third. Mosquirix can only be obtained with a prescription.
How does Mosquirix work?
Scientists at the European Medicines Agency say that the active substance in Mosquirix is made up of proteins found on the surface of the Plasmodium falciparum parasites.
When it is administered to a child, the immune system recognises the ‘foreign’ proteins from the parasite and makes antibodies against them.
What is the efficacy of Mosquirix?
The vaccine’s effectiveness at preventing severe cases of malaria in children is only around 30%, but it is the only approved vaccine. The European Union’s drugs regulator approved it in 2015, saying its benefits outweighed the risks.
WHO said the side effects of the vaccine were rare, but sometimes included a fever that could result in temporary convulsions.
How will Mosquirix help in checking the spread of malaria?
Azra Ghani, chair of infectious diseases at Imperial College London, said she and colleagues estimate that giving the malaria vaccine to children in Africa might result in a 30% reduction overall, with up to 8 million fewer cases and as many as 40,000 fewer deaths per year.
“For people not living in malaria countries, a 30% reduction might not sound like much. But for the people living in those areas, malaria is one of their top concerns,” Ghani said. “A 30% reduction will save a lot of lives and will save mothers (from) bringing in their children to health centers and swamping the health system.”
The malaria burden in Africa
Malaria is far more deadly than Covid-19 in Africa. It is caused by the parasite plasmodium falciparum. The disease killed 386,000 Africans in 2019, according to a WHO estimate, compared with 212,000 confirmed deaths from Covid-19 in the past 18 months.
The WHO says 94% of malaria cases and deaths occur in Africa, a continent of 1.3 billion people. The preventable disease is caused by parasites transmitted to people by the bites of infected mosquitoes; symptoms include fever, vomiting and fatigue.
(With inputs from agencies)