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Malaria: New Vaccine Spells Huge Medical Breakthrough

Jonny Rogers reports on a new vaccine that might save millions of lives in coming years.

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Nearly half of the world’s population is at risk of contracting malaria. The World Health Organization (WHO) reported that there were 229 million new malaria infections across 87 countries in 2019 alone and a total of 409,000 deaths, two thirds of which were children under the age of five.

However, a new vaccine developed by researchers at the University of Oxford has proven to be 77% effective in a 12-month trial in Burkina Faso. Although other malaria vaccines have been developed and trialled previously, this is the first to achieve the minimum 75% efficacy standard set by the WHO in 2013. Larger trials are set to take place across four African nations to confirm the latest studies.

The Fight Against Malaria

Malaria derives its name from the Medieval Italian ‘mala aria’ (meaning ‘bad air’) due the now-obsolete theory that diseases were caused by miasma, or contaminated air. By the end of the 19th century, however, it was discovered that mosquitos were involved in the transmission of the disease.

Since then, scientists have discovered that malaria is caused by a single-celled parasite - Plasmodium - which requires more than one host for survival. The Plasmodium parasite is carried by the female Anopheles mosquitos, which most often infect human hosts by biting them between dusk and dawn. In areas of high transmission – primarily Sub-Saharan Africa, but also South America and South-East Asia – the most vulnerable people are children, pregnant women and migrants, all of whom have limited or decreased immune systems.

Alongside the development of a vaccine, a number of charities and organisations have discovered additional methods to limit mosquito infection. The Against Malaria Foundation (AMF), consistently rated one of charity-evaluator GiveWell’s top charities, has provided over 165 million long-lasting insecticidal nets since 2004. Antimalarial drugs have also been developed, though genetic mutations in the parasites have made them increasingly resistant. Nevertheless, the WHO report estimates that 1.5 billion infections and 7.6 million deaths have been averted since 2000 due to these inventions, among others.

Malaria and Coronavirus

Although the past two decades have seen a steady reduction in malaria-related deaths, the speed at which coronavirus vaccines have been developed in comparison to an effective malaria vaccine exposes a deeply troubling fact about disease prevention and global aid – most of the people in the developed world has less interest in dealing with issues which do not directly affect them.

Professor Adrian Hill, Director of the Jenner Institute at the University of Oxford, has pointed out that Malaria killed at least four times as many people in Africa than Covid last year.

However, it is worth noting that malaria contains thousands of genes compared to around a dozen in coronavirus, and covid vaccines were in-part developed on the strength of existing research into malaria. Nevertheless, Hill also points out that malaria aid has lacked the urgency and attention given to the pandemic, despite its significant impact on a large number of nations:

“Nobody for a moment questioned whether covid should have an emergency use review and authorisation in Africa – of course it did, very quickly. So why shouldn’t a disease that firstly kills children rather than older people, certainly killed an awful lot more, be prioritised for emergency use authorisation in Africa?”

Pedro Alsonso, Director of the WHO’s Malaria Programme, also predicted that the impact of disruption to malaria treatment caused by the global pandemic could result in more deaths than coronavirus itself:

“There could be an excess of malaria deaths of somewhere between 20,000 and 100,000 in sub-Saharan Africa, most of them in young children [...] It’s very likely that excess malaria mortality is larger than the direct COVID mortality.”

As one of the leading causes of child mortality in Africa, and a threat to around a half of the world’s population, the new vaccine might be the crucial breakthrough scientists have been working towards and anticipating for years.


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