John Sterling
John Sterling

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has committed $2 billion to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria, beyond the $2.9 billion in grants it has committed to other antimalaria efforts. Consequently, Bill Gates—and everyone else interested in fighting malaria—should welcome the latest news from the frontlines. In April, the world’s first malaria vaccine was launched in Africa.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), over 250,000 children die each year in Africa where kids under five are at greatest risk for its life-threatening complications. The vaccine, known as RTS,S, will be administered to 360,000 children up to two years of age.

RTS,S, branded as Mosquirix, was created in 1987 by researchers at GSK. In early 2001, GSK and PATH, an international nonprofit organization, working with the support of the Gates Foundation, partnered to develop the vaccine for infants and young children living in malaria-endemic regions in sub-Saharan Africa. Its efficacy was established in a Phase III trial that concluded in 2014. The vaccine was found to prevent approximately 4 in 10 malaria cases, including 3 in 10 cases of extremely severe malaria.

RTS,S aims to trigger the immune system to defend against the first stages of malaria when the Plasmodium falciparum parasite enters the human host’s bloodstream through a mosquito bite and infects liver cells, reports WHO. The vaccine is designed to prevent the parasite from infecting the liver, where it can mature, multiply, reenter the bloodstream, and infect red blood cells, eventually giving rise to disease symptoms.

“We have seen tremendous gains from bed nets and other measures to control malaria in the last 15 years, but progress has stalled and even reversed in some areas. We need new solutions to get the malaria response back on track, and this vaccine gives us a promising tool to get there,” said WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, PhD, upon the announcement of the Malawi initiative.

To me, his next statement was the key message: “The malaria vaccine has the potential to save tens of thousands of children’s lives.”

My colleague and GEN’s technical editor, Jeff Buguliskis, PhD, whose doctoral research focused on malaria, really spotlighted the global impact of malaria when he referred to an enduring but still shocking statistic. “It has been estimated,” he said, “that malaria has killed half of all human life that has ever existed.”

Let’s hope that we are now finally on the road toward ending this scourge of humanity.

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