Science: How the malaria vaccine could change world health

How the malaria vaccine could change world health

“In each house were three or four patients who complained of chilling, severe headaches, sweating, pain in back and extremities. After four or five relapses, the headaches and pain became unbearable for many patients who then exhibited a muddling delirium with coma, ending in death. Most were between the ages of five and 20 years.

Nearly half the world’s population is at risk of the mosquito-borne disease. But a new vaccine may stop it in its tracks, saving millions of lives and boosting the economies of the developing world.

Malaria is humanity’s curse. It is among the oldest of human diseases, infecting our earliest ancestors, influencing our recent evolution, and causing an estimated half of all deaths since the Stone Age. Today, nearly half of the world’s population is at risk from malaria – it kills more than 400,000 people a year, most of them in Africa, where a child dies every two minutes from the disease. But now hopes have been raised of an end to the scourge: the first malaria vaccine is being rolled out in immunisation programmes in Malawi, Ghana and Kenya.

The new vaccine has been developed by GlaxoSmithKline with the support of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and others including the World Health Organization (WHO) and Gavi, the global vaccine alliance. It took 32 years of research, and cost more than $700m (£552m).

Trials show it to be just 40% effective at preventing the disease over four years. That’s about as effective as influenza vaccine, but considerably less than the 97% effective diphtheria vaccine. And yet, it may well be the most significant win in our war with malaria for several decades, preventing many thousands of deaths and reducing the great social and economic burden that comes with experiencing or caring for someone with chronic sickness.

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