Oct. 6, 2021 -- The World Health Organization (WHO) on Wednesday recommended the use of a malaria vaccine for children in sub-Saharan Africa and in other areas where risk for the disease is high, offering hope and relief to countless families across the African continent and beyond.

Malaria kills over 260,000 children under 5 years old in Africa each year, according to the WHO. The disease is the leading cause of both sickness and death for children in sub-Saharan Africa.

The malaria vaccine offers protection against the world’s deadliest malaria parasite, commonly found in Africa, the WHO said.

“This is a historic moment,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, PhD, said in a statement. “The long-awaited malaria vaccine for children is a breakthrough for science, child health, and malaria control.”

“Using this vaccine on top of existing tools to prevent malaria could save tens of thousands of young lives each year,” he said.

Malaria is a serious, life-threatening disease that stems from a parasite and then spreads through mosquitoes.

It is usually found in warm, tropical climates, particularly in Africa, the Middle East, and South and Southeast Asia.

A person usually starts to feel symptoms between 10 and 15 days after getting bitten by an infected mosquito.

Symptoms often include headache, fatigue, and body aches and can progress to diarrhea, seizures, convulsions, and death.

Adults can also get sick with malaria, but the disease is often far more severe -- and potentially fatal -- for children.

"For centuries, malaria has stalked sub-Saharan Africa, causing immense personal suffering,” said Matshidiso Moeti, MD, the WHO regional director for Africa.

“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.”

The malaria vaccine will be given in four doses, on a schedule, to children 5 months old and older, the WHO said.

The Research

The recommendation comes after 2 years of a pilot program that tested the vaccine in child health clinics in three sub-Saharan African countries: Kenya, Ghana, and Malawi.

Since 2019, the malaria vaccine has reached more than 800,000 African children with positive results, the WHO said.

The researchers found a 30% reduction in severe malaria, including in areas that have better access to safety measures, such as mosquito nets, according to the WHO.

To date, more than 2.3 million doses of the vaccine -- which is easy to deliver, cost-effective, and has a “favorable safety profile,” the organization said -- have been administered across Kenya, Ghana, and Malawi.

Moving Forward

Next steps include working with countries on rollout strategies for the malaria vaccine, as well as weighing funding options with global health communities to help the vaccine reach as many at-risk children as possible, according to the organization.

The pilot program will continue in Ghana, Kenya, and Malawi in order to study the effectiveness of the fourth dose of the vaccine and to continue to observe the vaccine’s protection against child deaths, the WHO said.

WebMD Health News Brief

Sources

News release, World Health Organization.

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