The World Health Organization on Wednesday recommended the “widespread” use of the first-ever vaccine for malaria, one of the oldest known diseases that kills over 4 lakh people annually, including a few thousand in India, according to some estimates.
The vaccine, RTS,S, or Mosquirix, has been developed by British drugmaker Glaxo SmithKline and has already been used on more than 8 lakh children in Ghana, Kenya, and Malawi as part of an ongoing pilot programme since 2019.
The World Health Organization (WHO) is recommending “widespread use of the RTS,S /AS01 (RTS,S) malaria vaccine among children in sub-Saharan Africa and in other regions with moderate to high P. falciparum malaria transmission”, the WHO said in a statement.
P. falciparum is the most common malaria-causing parasite found in female Anopheles mosquitoes. According to WHO, over 99 per cent of all malaria cases in Africa, and about 50 per cent in south-east Asia are caused by this species.
In India, malaria cases have come down significantly in the last few years. The official death toll due to malaria is only in the hundreds, but WHO estimates suggest that the actual number could be in a few thousands. Rural and tribal areas of Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Rajasthan, and Maharashtra are known to be the most prone to malaria outbreaks.
RTS,S, the first-ever vaccine to prevent malaria, has been 30 years in the making. While the vaccine’s effectiveness in preventing severe cases of malaria in children is only around 30%, severe cases account for up to half of malaria deaths and is considered a reliable proximal indicator of mortality.
It was not immediately clear when the malaria vaccine could be introduced in India. The government would have to approve its use on the Indian population.
Thirty years in the making, RTS,S is the first, and to date the only, vaccine to reduce malaria in children. But it is not highly efficacious, according to Dr V S Chauhan who is known for his role in development of a recombinant vaccine for malaria.
“It’s efficacy is low and immunity wanes off after three to four years. Research is going on and there are new candidates on the horizon. There is hope,” Chauhan told The Indian Express.
WHO has also advised countries to move away from a “one-size fits all” approach and apply a mix of tools, tailored to local contexts, for maximum benefit. A malaria vaccine is a breakthrough addition to the malaria toolkit and can help get malaria control back on track, the WHO has said.
In 2019, there were an estimated 229 million cases of malaria worldwide. The estimated number of malaria deaths stood at 409,000 that year. In 2019, India had an estimated 5.6 million cases of malaria, according to WHO.