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Science

Finally… historic malaria vaccine approved

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Did it take too long? It has been hailed as a breakthrough that could save tens of thousands of lives. But researchers have been trying to create one for more than a century.

It’s a big day for Latif Ndeketa. Growing up in MalawiA country in southeastern Africa with a GDP per capita of just 5.29. he was always sick. He missed school, felt weak and feverish. He had malaria, a disease that kills one child every two minutes.

Now a doctor, he spent six years running a pilot of the world’s first malaria vaccineThe drug is called RTS,S or Mosquirix and has been in development for 34 years.. Last week, the World Health OrganisationThe United Nations agency responsible for global public health. approved it.

It is “not a silver bullet“, says disease expert Chris Drakeley. The jab is only 30% effective in severe cases. But WHO boss Tedros Adhanom calls it “a long stride” on the road to eradicating malaria.

Every year, 400,000 people die from the illness. Most are children living in sub-Saharan Africa46 countries lie south of the Sahara desert. 95% of all deaths from malaria occur here in this region.. One study predicts 30 million doses across 21 countries could prevent as many as 6.8 million infections each year.

The head of the WHO is delighted: “I longed for the day that we would have an effective vaccine against this ancient and terrible disease.”

Malaria is caused by a parasiteAn organism that lives in or on another living thing. The malaria parasite is called Plasmodium falciparum.. It has been around for 30 million years, its DNA found in ancient Roman remains. Estimates range between 4% and 50% of all humans who ever lived were killed by malaria.

Before the 19th Century, scientists thought the fever was caused by noxious gases from swamps. Malaria means bad air in medieval Italian. Eight of Shakespeare’s plays refer to the deadly “ague” that killed figures like Alexander the Great and Oliver Cromwell.

But in 1897, Ronald RossThe British doctor’s discovery is commemorated every 20 August on World Mosquito Day. paid a malaria patient to be bitten by a mosquito. He dissected the insect and found the parasite, proving mosquitoes cause infections.

His work began the hunt for a cure. The only effective Victorian medicine was quinine, a bitter drug extracted from the South American fever treeBark from the Peruvian cinchona tree was brought to Europe by Spanish missionaries in 1632. In 1820, French chemists extracted the quinine for use in medicine..

Vaccine research started in 1987. Why did it take so long? “It’s certainly not for a lack of trying,” says virologist Jason Kindrachuk. Parasites are “very complex” organisms that “change and adapt”.

The parasite transforms many times as it moves between insect and human. It escapes the body’s immune responseThe vaccine behaves like the disease, causing the body to release antibodies. This gives the person protection from a future infection of the real parasite.. The vaccine targets one stage in this complicated process.

But Chris Drakeley thinks the “biggest factor” slowing the war on malaria is a lack of political will. The United States was declared malaria-free in 1951. A global campaign used the insecticide DDT to eliminate it from much of the world by 1969.

Now it affects mostly poor African countries. “If there were regular cases in Europe or America”, suggests Drakeley, there would be a bigger push to achieve the WHO’s goal to wipe out “every single malaria parasite from the face of the planet.”

Did it take too long?

Buzz off

No. This is a major success story of medical science. The vaccine’s co-inventor Joe Cohen says “we needed to proceed very, very carefully” in order to protect the children we want to help. Safe trials are how we make sure a vaccine works.

Yes. Malaria is not a priority for rich countries. Scientist Silas Majambere says it was eradicated in Europe by replacing poor housing and improving access to health care. Africa is given drugs when it needs a long-term solution: the end of poverty.

Keywords

Malawi – A country in southeastern Africa with a GDP per capita of just $625.29.

Malaria vaccine – The drug is called RTS,S or Mosquirix and has been in development for 34 years.

World Health Organisation – The United Nations agency responsible for global public health.

Sub-Saharan Africa – 46 countries lie south of the Sahara desert. 95% of all deaths from malaria occur here in this region.

Parasite – An organism that lives in or on another living thing. The malaria parasite is called Plasmodium falciparum.

Ronald Ross – The British doctor’s discovery is commemorated every 20 August on World Mosquito Day.

Fever tree – Bark from the Peruvian cinchona tree was brought to Europe by Spanish missionaries in 1632. In 1820, French chemists extracted the quinine for use in medicine.

Immune response – The vaccine behaves like the disease, causing the body to release antibodies. This gives the person protection from a future infection of the real parasite.

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  • Some people say

    • "It is impossible to calculate the harm malaria has done to the world."
    • Bill Gates (1955 - ), American businessman and philanthropist. He has donated millions of dollars to the fight against malaria.
    • "With tears and toiling breath,
      I find thy cunning seeds,
      O million-murdering Death."
    • Ronald Ross (1957 - 1932), British medical doctor. He wrote this poem the day he proved malaria was transmitted by mosquitoes.
  • Dive in deeper

    •  The historic news of the world's first malaria vaccine. ITV News (2:34)
    •  A brief history of malaria and the fight to eradicate it. Gates Foundation (6:04)
    •  A useful summary of the facts about the new vaccine. BBC Newsround (800 words)
    •  One scientist argues we need to fight poverty to end malaria. The Conversation (900 words)

Six steps to discovery

  1. Draw on what you already know, to understand what you do not yet know

    • 1. Read the bold paragraph under the photo. What do you think about this topic?
    • 2. How does it make you feel?
  2. Identify the questions that will best guide your investigation

    • 1. Watch the first video on the Dive in deeper panel.
    • 2. Note the questions it answers and the questions it raises.
  3. Read the article thoughtfully and make sure you understand the key words

    • 1. Make two columns on a sheet of paper. Go through the article noting down factual claims in one column and opinions in the other.
    • 2. Explain why these facts and opinions are important.
  4. Make sense of what you have read and think about the opinions in Some people say

    • 1. Why might the topic of this article matter to you?
    • 2. To make a better world, what kind of things need to change?
  5. Make a case for your point of view

    • 1. If only we were immune from... ? In small groups, think up ideas for vaccines that could make the world a better place. Share your medical inventions with the class.
    • 2. "If rich people died of malaria, we would find a cure tomorrow." Hold a class debate on this statement. 
  6. Describe what you have learned from this inquiry

    • 1. Make a poster to encourage people to take the new malaria vaccine.
    • 2. Research the barriers and solutions to eradicating malaria. Write an action plan to rid the world of the disease by 2100.