In this Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2019, file photo, a woman waits outside the Migowi Health Clinic to be injected with the world's first vaccine against malaria in a pilot program, in Migowi, Malawi. 

First WHO-backed malaria vaccine is a ‘dream for the community,’ health expert says

Regina Rabinovich, the director of the Malaria Elimination Initiative at ISGlobal and a visiting scholar at Harvard University, joined The World’s host Marco Werman to discuss the advancement.

The World

Malaria kills hundreds of thousands of people every year. Most of them live in sub-Saharan Africa, and overwhelmingly, it’s children younger than 5 years old who die of malaria.

Related: COVID-19 threatens global progress in fight against other communicable diseases

But on Wednesday, Dr. Tedros Ghebreyesus, the head of the World Health Organization, made an announcement that he called “historic.”

“Malaria has been with us for millennia, and the dream of a malaria vaccine has been a long-held, but unattainable, dream,” he said. “Today, the RTS,S malaria vaccine — more than 30 years in the making — changes the course of public health history.”

Related: Burkina Faso is fighting malaria — with genetically modified mosquitoes

It’s a vaccine against malaria that is safe for children. To discuss the latest advancement, Regina Rabinovich, the director of the Malaria Elimination Initiative at ISGlobal and a visiting scholar at Harvard University, joined The World’s host Marco Werman.

Marco Werman: So, this vaccine for malaria has been called a game changer. Why is that?
Regina Rabinovich: It’s been called a game changer, well, it’s the first malaria vaccine we’ve ever been able to develop. And then, it adds a totally different approach to attacking the disease by strengthening the immune system of children so that they are protected from the severe effects of an infection.
But, this vaccine does not prevent transmission of malaria. Is that important?
It is important, and we have other tools. It’s important to note that all of the trials have been done on top of giving children bed nets and sprays where that is the recommended approach with insecticides. Those kill the mosquito. But this protects the baby.
And it’s a vaccine that’s safe for children. Remind us why this focus on children getting this vaccine is so significant.
Well, over time, as children get a number of infections, they develop partial immunity. And as adults in Africa who have been exposed frequently, they tend to get very mild disease, unless they are immunocompromised or pregnant. So, the ones that get very severe disease tend to be children in highly endemic areas, where there’s a lot of disease, are the children less than five. So, protecting them from severe disease, from hospitalization and from dying is a huge value for global health and for impact on child health.
So, I had malaria several times, once really bad, and it lays you out, leads to massive lack of productivity. Not to mention, lives lost, if that happens. How many lives could be saved by this vaccine?
That part is still an evolving story. This pilot program that they are doing will continue its ongoing evaluation for two more years. The indication is that it does decrease mortality. It clearly prevents severe malaria, and it decreases the need for hospitalization in children.
Remind us, who are the people around the world who continue to be affected by malaria in 2021? Where are they and how many are there?
There are approximately 200 million cases reported a year — 200 million. And of those, about 400,000 die. So, this is not a disease that is everywhere, like a pandemic, like COVID-19. There are countries in Asia, Latin America and Africa — especially Africa — that bear the highest burden.
Well, we heard Dr. Tedros earlier calling this malaria vaccine historic. How excited are you by this news today?
Well, I’m extremely excited. I think it’s overwhelming, actually. It is a dream for the community that we would be able to tackle this disease, not only with partially effective nets and insecticides and treatments, but also with the creation of immunity in those most fragile.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

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