Malaria vaccine WHO-approved for Africa

A malaria vaccine has been recommended by WHO for widespread use in Africa.
A malaria vaccine has been recommended by WHO for widespread use in Africa.

The world's first malaria vaccine should be given to children across Africa, the World Health Organization has recommended, in a move that officials hope will spur stalled efforts to curb the spread of the parasitic disease.

WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus called it "a historic moment" after a meeting in which two of the UN health agency's expert advisory groups endorsed using the vaccine.

"Today's recommendation offers a glimmer of hope for the continent, which shoulders the heaviest burden of the disease. And we expect many more African children to be protected from malaria and grow into healthy adults," said Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO's Africa director, on Wednesday.

WHO said its decision was based largely on results from ongoing research in Ghana, Kenya and Malawi that tracked more than 800,000 children who have received the vaccine since 2019.

The malaria vaccine known as Mosquirix was developed by GlaxoSmithKline in 1987. While it's the first to be authorised, it does have challenges: the vaccine is only about 30 per cent effective, requires up to four doses and its protection fades after several months.

Still, given the extremely high burden of malaria in Africa - where the majority of the world's more than 200 million cases a year and 400,000 deaths a year occur - scientists say the vaccine could still have a major impact.

"This is a huge step forward," said Julian Rayner, director of the Cambridge Institute for Medical Research, who was not part of the WHO decision. "It's an imperfect vaccine, but it will still stop hundreds of thousands of children from dying."

Rayner said the vaccine's impact on the spread of the mosquito-borne disease was still unclear, but pointed to coronavirus vaccines as an encouraging example.

"The last two years have given us a very nuanced understanding of how important vaccines are in saving lives and reducing hospitalisations, even if they don't directly reduce transmission," he said.

WHO said side effects were rare, but sometimes included a fever that could result in temporary convulsions.

Azra Ghani, chair of infectious diseases at Imperial College London, said she and colleagues estimate that the introduction of the malaria vaccine in African children might result in a 30 per cent reduction overall: up to 8 million fewer cases and as many as 40,000 fewer deaths per year.

Australian Associated Press