June 20, 2011

New hope against malaria

The malaria vaccine that has eluded medical science for decades is now within reach, with the final phase of clinical trials underway in seven African countries, including Malawi, where the disease claims 6,500 lives a year, most of them children under the age of five. Tisungane Mvalo, head of the research team at the Malawian trial site, which is being run in partnership with the University of North Carolina's Institute for Global Health and Infectious Diseases, said the current methods for controlling the incidence of malaria in Malawi have had limited success. "We have had a moderate reduction in infant mortality from interventions like bed nets and insecticides but malaria remains the leading cause of infant mortality," he said. "There still needs to be an additional intervention."
The multi-country trial of the malaria vaccine RTS,S, made by GlaxoSmithKline Biologicals, is one of the largest ever carried out in sub-Saharan Africa. With funding from GlaxoSmithKline and the PATH Malaria Vaccine Initiative - an NGO that develops research for malaria - 15,000 newborns and infants are being inoculated at 11 sites across the region. The children are then monitored over a period of 36 months to assess the effectiveness of RTS,S, which in previous studies reduced cases of severe malaria in infants by 53 percent. If the results, which are due to be released later this year, confirm the vaccine's efficacy in preventing malaria, it could be made available as early as 2015.

A malaria vaccine would not only save lives, it would also alleviate the great burden of the disease on health systems in economically stretched developing countries. Malawi has a good track record for immunizing children: 98 percent have received the standard vaccines recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO). The addition of a malaria vaccine, even at 50 percent effectiveness, could greatly reduce the number of children needing expensive hospital care.

Malaria prevention has been less successful than was hoped. According to the 2010 Malawi Demographic and Health Survey, about 70 percent of households have bed nets, but just half the children under five are using them. Most researchers agree that a malaria vaccine will not substitute for current preventative measures, but could greatly reduce mortality from the disease and create huge financial gains for countries where malaria is endemic. Public health researchers estimate that in such countries, malaria directly absorbs one percent of GDP, excluding indirect costs like loss of work hours. (IRIN)


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