Vaccines advance the fight against malaria

Baby receiving inoculation as its mother holds it (© Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP/Getty Images)
On March 7, a child receives a dose of the RTS,S malaria vaccine in Kenya, one of three countries where the World Health Organization has administered the new vaccine and seen a more than 10% drop in child deaths from malaria. (© Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP/Getty Images)

A new malaria vaccine is saving lives in Africa, as countries and international partners work to expand its use.

Spread by mosquitoes, malaria infects more than 200 million people annually and kills hundreds of thousands each year, mostly children under age 5. While preventive measures such as insecticide-treated bed nets have reduced malaria’s toll, vaccines are now having an added impact.

The malaria vaccine RTS,S/AS01 (RTS,S), also called Mosquirix, was developed by pharmaceutical firm GlaxoSmithKline, which is based in the United Kingdom, with support from U.S. researchers and others.

“RTS,S, is saving lives,” World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said January 30. “In Ghana, Kenya and Malawi, where over 1.2 million children have now received the vaccine, we see a substantial decrease in hospitalizations for severe malaria, and a more than 10% drop in child deaths,” Ghebreyesus added.

More African countries offer vaccine

More than 4.5 million safe and effective doses of RTS,S have already been provided through a pilot program in Ghana, Kenya and Malawi. At least 28 more African nations are rolling out the vaccine this year, after the WHO recommended RTS,S for widespread use in sub-Saharan Africa and other areas with high malaria transmission in October 2021.

Long-elusive progress on a malaria vaccine comes as the WHO marks World Malaria Day 2023 this April 25 with the theme “Time to deliver zero malaria: invest, innovate, implement.”

World Immunization Week, April 24–30, honors international partners’ efforts to protect people worldwide from preventable diseases. According to the WHO, high demand for RTS,S in Africa may draw families to clinics, where more children can be immunized against other diseases and receive basic care.

African women with their children waiting in corner of open-walled building (© Jerome Delay/AP)
Residents of the Tomali village in Malawi wait to receive the RTS,S malaria vaccine in December 2019. (© Jerome Delay/AP)

U.S. funds expanded access, innovation

Meanwhile, U.S.-funded health organizations like Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, are working to expand access to RTS,S. In late 2021, Gavi approved an initial $155.7 million to support increased vaccinations and accepted countries’ requests to participate in the effort through January 2023.

“The work towards a malaria vaccine has been long and hard,” Gavi chief executive Dr. Seth Berkley said in July 2022. “Alongside existing interventions, this new tool will allow us to save more lives in countries hit hardest by this killer disease.”

U.S. innovators are also advancing new malaria vaccines. The Maryland-based biotechnology company Sanaria Inc.’s vaccine Plasmodium falciparum sporozoite (PfSPZ) has proven up to 46% effective in preventing malaria in adults after 18 months, according to a recent University of Maryland School of Medicine study.

PfSPZ has been found safe in 21 completed or ongoing trials in the United States, the European Union and Africa, according to the U.S. National Institutes of Health.