The World Health Organization approved the first-ever vaccine to prevent malaria on Wednesday, a shot that could save tens of thousands of lives each year, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa where cases of the mosquito-borne disease are high.
The new vaccine, called Mosquirix, helps the immune system fight off a malaria pathogen common in Africa. It not only is the first vaccine to prevent malaria, but the first to prevent a parasitic disease.
WHO endorsed the vaccine for children in sub-Saharan Africa and other regions with malaria. The disease kills around half a million people each year, mostly in Africa. The majority of those deaths — 260,000 — are in children under age 5.
The vaccine was 50% effective at preventing severe malaria in clinical trials during the first year of testing. That efficacy dropped down to nearly zero after four years, but the immediate impacts of the vaccine on areas struggling with malaria cases made it worthwhile.
“I do expect we will see that impact,” said Dr. Mary Hamel, the lead of WHO’s malaria vaccine implementation program, according to The New York Times.
Dr. Pedro Alonso, director of the WHO’s global malaria program, said in a statement that news of the vaccine’s effectiveness is “a historical event,” after a hundred years of research into a parasite vaccine.
“It’s a huge jump from the science perspective to have a first-generation vaccine against a human parasite,” he added.
The vaccine requires three doses in babies between 5 and 17 months, followed by a fourth dose around 18 months later. After initial clinical trials, it was added to the usual immunization courses in Kenya, Malawi and Ghana, and more than 2.3 million doses have been administered so far, to more than 800,000 children. Hamel said that more than 90% of children in those areas are now protected against malaria.
“We have long hoped for an effective malaria vaccine and now, for the first time ever, we have such a vaccine recommended for widespread use,” said Matshidiso Moeti, WHO’s regional director for Africa. “Today’s recommendation offers a glimmer of hope for the continent which shoulders the heaviest burden of the disease and we expect many more African children to be protected from malaria and grow into healthy adults.”