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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 getting 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 for general use.
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 parasite that lives in mosquitoes and humans. 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, making the mosquito our deadliest predator.
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 famous historical 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. He celebrated by writing a poem and later won the Nobel Prize for Medicine.
His work began the long 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.. In India, the British disguised the taste with sugar, lime and gin – inventing the Gin and Tonic.
Vaccine research started in 1987. The Covid-19 jab took only months to develop, so 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”.
During its life cycle, the parasite transforms many times as it moves between insect and human. Hiding inside red blood cells, 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 only 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 much 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?
Some say no, this is a major success story of cutting-edge 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, controlled trials and pilots are how we make sure a vaccine works and doesn’t cause harm.
Others say 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 and bed nets when it needs a long-term permanent solution: the end of poverty.
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.
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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