Possible Malaria Vaccine Found

MosquitoThis ought to be the top story on every news outlet in the world — a malaria vaccine appears to finally be within reach.

The long-awaited results of the largest-ever malaria vaccine study, involving 15,460 babies and small children, show that it could massively reduce the impact of the much-feared killer disease. Malaria takes nearly 800,000 lives every year – most of them children under five. It damages many more.

The vaccine has been in development for two decades – the brainchild of scientists at the UK drug company GlaxoSmithKline, which has promised to sell it at no more than a fraction over cost-price, with the excess being ploughed back into further tropical disease research…

This early data from five- to 17-month-old children is the first of three important results; the second outcome from the vaccination of newborn babies will be published next year. These are crucial, because the malaria vaccine needs to be incorporated into the infant immunisation schedule, alongside the usual diptheria and measles jabs, but earlier small-scale trials suggest the results in six- to 12-week-old babies will also show around 50% protection.

If you live in the Northern Hemisphere you may not understand why a malaria vaccine would be a Big Deal, but those who live in the Southern Hemisphere understand it all too well; malaria relies on mosquitoes for transmission, and mosquitoes thrive in the global South’s tropical climate. And the result is beyond tragic: according to the Centers for Disease Control, malaria kills somewhere between 700,000 and 1,000,000 people every year, most of them children in sub-Saharan Africa.

To put that into some perspective, imagine if this year we took the entire population of San Francisco and shot them dead.   Then next year we did the same to the entire population of Indianapolis.  And then the year after that we did the same to the entire population of Austin, Texas. And then the year after that…

This probably seems unthinkable. But it’s the same scale as the very real human tragedy that malaria inflicts. Which is why a reliable malaria vaccine would be a huge breakthrough in public health — a breakthrough that would go down in the history books.

The results of this trial do not necessarily mean that such a breakthrough has occurred.  Scientists still need to do long-term tests to determine how long the vaccine’s protection will last, and its current effectiveness rate of 50% is lower than they generally like for vaccines; early tests of the vaccines against influenza and polio, by contrast, saw effectiveness rates on the order of 70-90%.

For all that, though, these results look like an incredibly encouraging step forward; even if the effectiveness rate of this vaccine never goes higher than 50%, I imagine there are plenty of parents who would be more than happy to cut their child’s malaria risk in half. (If your child was at risk, wouldn’t you?) And one has to assume that if this particular vaccine proves to work, enormous amounts of money and research will be brought to bear to get its effectiveness rate up as high as it can possibly go.

It’s sobering sometimes to think about just how far medicine has come in a very short amount of time.  A look at this timeline makes the point. Recorded human history goes back to about 4,000 BC. For nearly all of it, humanity had little or no protection against a whole range of infectious diseases.  It wasn’t until more than five thousand years after history began that methods of protection against these diseases began to emerge; first variolation, and then later the safer method of vaccination pioneered by Edward Jenner in the late 18th century.

Since then, in just over 200 years, a whole range of deadly plagues have been struck down by science. Smallpox. Diphtheria. Polio. Names that once terrified families and communities, now relegated by vaccination to dusty history books.

Is malaria next?

It’s probably too soon to say. But I sure hope so.



October 19, 2011
11:28 am

I’d also like to know what cutting the incidence by 50% would do to the spread of malaria itself. At what point does some herd immunity really hurt the virus’s reach – I suspect its up around 80-90% but 50% is a great start.

Sandy Smith

October 23, 2011
11:54 pm

A more biologically-oriented friend looked at the writeup and said, “So…they invented sickle-cell anaemia. Good one.”