The last week of July 2015 saw a landmark achievement in the fight against malaria, when the RTS,S vaccine (brand name Mosquirix) received a ‘positive scientific opinion’ from the European Medicines Agency. That sounds a bit jargony, but what it means is that the new vaccine is considered safe and effective and can now go forward to the World Health Organisation (WHO) for approval for use across the world. This is a really big thing because not only is this the first malaria vaccine to achieve this, it is the first vaccine against any parasitic disease to achieve this.
Spread by mosquitoes, malaria is responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths every year, the majority of which occur in Africa. Malaria is caused by a parasite called Plasmodium, which is transmitted via the bites of infected mosquitoes. In the human body these parasites multiply in the liver and then infect red blood cells, causing fever, headache, and vomiting (there is an interactive ‘tour’ of the malaria parasite life-cycle available on the Wellcome Trust’s website here). If not treated, malaria can quickly become life threatening by disrupting the blood supply to vital organs. The new vaccine works by making it difficult for the parasites to enter the liver and multiply.
Tests show that the new vaccine cuts the rate of severe malaria cases in children by one third. That’s not a great level of effectiveness compared to, say, the MMR vaccine (97% effective against measles) but is a fantastic step forward compared to anything we’ve had before, plus the science learned from creating and testing this vaccine will really help with making better vaccines in the future against both malaria and other parasitic diseases.
The WHO’s decision on approval for the vaccine is due in October/November 2015. Because of the relatively low level of effectiveness it’s not a foregone conclusion (there is a great discussion of the issues here) but given the high number of people infected with malaria every year even when this is taken in to account it could still prove to be a great life saver when carefully combined with existing tactics such as pesticide and net use. We’ll report on the final decision as soon as it’s released.
Find out more about malaria and how you can help in the fight against it in our three malaria activities, part of our Waterworld resources. Why not also check out ‘Malaria no more‘ to see how you can help?