The first malaria vaccine is to be introduced to nine more countries, with 18 million doses given out across 12 African states in total, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has announced.
In a joint statement with Unicef and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, the WHO described the move as “a critical step forward in the fight against one of the leading causes of death on the continent.”
Along with more doses being provided for Ghana, Kenya and Malawi, where vaccinations have been taking place since 2019, vaccines will also be distributed in Benin, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Liberia, Niger, Sierra Leone and Uganda. The vaccines will begin to arrive at the end of 2023, and the countries receiving them should be able to include them in routine immunisation programmes from the following year.
The allocations have prioritised “areas of highest need, where the risk of malaria illness and death among children are highest.”
Over the last four years, the RTS,S/AS01 vaccine has been given to more than 1.7 million children in Ghana, Kenya and Malawi. It has resulted in “both a substantial reduction in severe malaria and a fall in child deaths”, the statement said.
The vaccine is being heralded as a game-changer on a continent where almost half a million children under the age of five die of malaria each year. In 2021, Africa was home to 95 per cent of global malaria cases, and 96 per cent of deaths – 80 per cent of whom were children under the age of five.
Malaria can also cause anaemia and other harmful side effects, hampering children’s growth and education.
At least 28 countries across Africa have said they are interested in receiving the vaccine, the WHO said.
“This vaccine has the potential to be very impactful in the fight against malaria, and when broadly deployed alongside other interventions, it can prevent tens of thousands of future deaths every year,” said Thabani Maphosa, managing director of country programmes delivery at Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, which is one of the funders. “While we work with manufacturers to help ramp up supply, we need to make sure the doses that we do have are used as effectively as possible, which means applying all the learning from our pilot programmes as we broaden out to a new total of 12 countries.”
“Nearly every minute, a child under five years old dies of malaria,” said Unicef associate director of immunisation Ephrem T Lemango. “For a long time, these deaths have been preventable and treatable; but the roll-out of this vaccine will give children, especially in Africa, an even better chance at surviving. As supply increases, we hope even more children can benefit from this life-saving advancement.”