Should Africa be thrilled or worried about malaria vaccine being tested on African children from today?

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The world’s first malaria vaccine is being tested on hundreds of thousands of African kids from today until 2023, however, the side effects of the new vaccine, which is only 39 percent effective and has not been widely tested, are not known to many Africans. An early trial of the vaccine began in 2009.

The RTS,S vaccine, which is expected to give partial protection to African children, began in Malawi on Tuesday. Ghana in West Africa and Kenya in East Africa will begin vaccinating their children in the coming weeks.

At least 120,000 children aged two years and below will be vaccinated.

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The World Health Organization said the three countries, all in Africa, were reportedly picked because they already run large programs to tackle malaria, including the use of bed nets, yet still have high numbers of cases.

According to WHO, malaria kills more than 250,000 children every year in Africa, most of them children. Close to 500, 000 people, however, died of malaria in the world, many of them in Asia.

The RTS,S vaccine is said to prepare the immune system to attack the malaria parasite spread by mosquito bites.

Smaller trials showed that nearly 40% of the 5-to-17-month-olds who received it were protected.

“This is a landmark moment for immunisations, malaria control, and public health,” Dr Kate O’Brien, Director of Immunization and Vaccines at the World Health Organization, told the BBC.

Dr O’Brien said that malaria is “a really difficult disease to develop a vaccine against”.

“There were seven countries participating in a large trial where over 15,000 children participated,” Dr David Schellenberg, who has been working on the development of the vaccine with the WHO, told the BBC’s Newsday programme.

“[The trial] showed pretty clearly that this vaccine is safe and it is efficacious in terms of its ability to prevent clinical malaria episodes and also severe malaria episodes,” he said.

RTS,S has been more than three decades in the making, with scientists from drugs company GSK creating it in 1987.

According to the BBC, “years of testing supported by a host of organizations, including the Path Malaria Vaccine Initiative, and costing an estimated $1bn (£770m), have led to this point.

“The nearly 40% efficacy is not high in comparison with vaccines for other diseases, but Dr Schellenberg says RTS,S will add to the preventative measures, such as bed nets and insecticides, already being used”

Dr Schellenberg cautioned that “Nobody is suggesting that this is a magic bullet:.

“It may not sound like much but we’re talking about 40% reduction in severe malaria which unfortunately still has high mortality even when you have good access to good treatment,” he added.

Dr O’Brien said the vaccine lasted for at least for seven years and would target infants because they are most at risk.

The vaccine needs to be given four times – once a month for three months and then a fourth dose 18 months later.

Even with cautious optimism, it was not clear how many African doctors and scientists have worked in developing the new vaccine and whether the side effects would not be more devastating to African kids?

Many parents in several African countries may also not trust the western developed vaccine which has little African oversight at a time the African population is expected to explode by 2050.

In northern Nigeria, some vaccines had been rejected in the past by the population, fearing that they might wipe out the young African population or do more targeted bad than good.

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Simon Ateba
Simon Ateba
Based in Washington, District of Columbia, United States of America, Simon leads a brilliant team of reporters, freelance journalists, analysts, researchers and contributors from around the world to run TODAY NEWS AFRICA as editor-in-chief. Simon Ateba's journalistic experience spans over 10 years and covers many beats, including business and investment, information technology, politics, diplomacy, human rights, science reporting and much more. Write him: simonateba@todaynewsafrica.com

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