Vaccine could spell the end for malaria

After decades of research, scientists have made a breakthrough in the fight against malaria. A new vaccine halves the risk of catching the devastating disease.

Malaria is one of the world’s most destructive diseases: a mosquito-borne parasite that ravages African countries and kills one child every minute. Now, thanks to a new vaccine, the crippling impact of the disease could be dramatically reduced, saving millions of lives.

The vaccine forms the cornerstone of a $3 billion campaign, backed by philanthropist Bill Gates, to eradicate malaria by 2015. Trialled across seven African countries, with 15,460 babies and young children, it has been shown to halve the risk of malaria.

At present, the disease kills around 800,000 every year, infects 225 million, and affects many more. Experts believe that by blunting the productivity of African countries it helps keep millions of people in poverty. But if all goes to plan, malaria could receive a battering in 2015, when it is hoped the new vaccine will be rolled out.

That could mean, at last, striking malaria off medicine’s ‘wanted list’ of major killers. It would then join the small group of notorious diseases that scientific progress has managed to overcome.

In 1979, for example, there was global celebration as doctors declared the horrible smallpox virus to have been officially eradicated, after an unprecedented international programme of vaccination. A similar campaign has reduced the rates of polio – a crippling and sometimes fatal illness – by 99% globally.

Not every advance in disease control is based around a headline grabbing new vaccine. In the fight against malaria, some of the biggest successes so far have come from ‘everyday miracles’ such as insecticide-treated mosquito nets, which reduce infection rates by preventing mosquito bites happening.

The treatment and prevention of cholera, meanwhile, depends more on improved sanitation and access to simple re-hydration fluids than on miracle drugs. And condoms, combined with education and responsible behaviour, remain the most effective way to prevent HIV and AIDS.

Prevention is Cure

In countries with chaotic and undeveloped infrastructure, it can be practically impossible to run a vaccination campaign. And immunising a child against polio is of little use if they die later from malnutrition or diarrhoea. Vaccination, some say, is only a minor player in the fight against disease: on the road to good health, adequate nutrition, proper sanitation and contraception must come first.

All these things are crucial in the fight for public health, scientists will concede. To truly knock out a killer disease, however, you need new medicine. That means hard laboratory science.

You Decide

  1. Is healthcare money best spent on social programmes and education or on developing new medicines?
  2. Is health about more than just freedom from disease?

Activities

  1. Design your own public health campaign. Pick a health care issue that people can influence by their own behaviour – like healthy eating or not smoking – and use it as a focus for a leaflet or poster.
  2. Write a newspaper report on the difficulties of beating disease in the developing world. Pick one example, and focus on the achievements and challenges in one country.

Some People Say...

“Curing killer diseases is the most important challenge there is.”

What do you think?

Q & A

What causes Malaria?
Malaria is caused by a parasite, which enters the bloodstream from a mosquito bite, and quickly spreads to the liver, where it causes illness. The new vaccine is, in fact, the first to be developed against a parasitic disease.
Who developed the vaccine?
GlaxoSmithKline, a global pharmaceuticals firm. They plan to market it at a little over cost price, so even the poorest people can afford it, investing the rest in further research. The research is being funded, in part, by Bill Gates.
What are the symptoms of malaria?
Symptoms include fevers and aching, and the severity of a case can range from mild to fatal, with death caused by brain damage or kidney failure. Malaria is currently endemic in 108 countries.

Word Watch

Philanthropist
An individual who donates large amounts of money to charitable causes. One of the leading philanthropists in global vaccination campaigns is Bill Gates, who now runs his own philanthropic organisation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Vaccine
An injection or orally ingested preparation that increases immunity to a disease – usually by introducing pathogens, allowing the body's immune system to overcome them, and recognise them when they enter the body again.
Infrastructure
The basic facilities and resources in a state, such as roads, schools, and sanitary facilities.

Subjects

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