By Asma’u Ahmad
Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus, the WHO Director-General, made the commendation in a statement published on the WHO website on Tuesday.
The director-general said that Malawi was the first of three countries in Africa to launch the vaccine known as “RTS,S”, adding that Ghana and Kenya will introduce the vaccine in the coming weeks.
Ghebreyesus, who stressed that malaria remained one of the world’s leading killers, said that only new innovations such as this could get the level of malaria response back on track.
He said that although tremendous gains have been made from the use of bed nets and other malaria control measures in the last 15 years, progress had stalled and even reversed in some areas.
“WHO welcomes the government of Malawi’s launch of the world’s first malaria vaccine today in a landmark pilot programme.
“The country is the first of three in Africa in which the vaccine, known as RTS,S will be made available to children up to 2 years of age; Ghana and Kenya will introduce the vaccine in the coming weeks.
“We have seen tremendous gains from bed nets and other measures to control malaria in the last 15 years but progress has stalled and even reversed in some areas.
“We need new solutions to get the malaria response back on track and this vaccine gives us a promising tool to get there. The malaria vaccine has the potential to save tens of thousands of children’s lives.
“Malaria remains one of the world’s leading killers claiming the life of one child every two minutes. Most of these deaths are in Africa where more than 250,000 children die from the disease every year.
“Children under 5 are at greatest risk of its life-threatening complications. Worldwide, malaria kills 435,000 people a year most of whom are children,” Ghebreyesus said.
The director-general said that RTS,S was 30 years in the making and to date, the first and only vaccine that has demonstrated it can significantly reduce malaria in children.
He said that in clinical trials, the vaccine was found to prevent approximately four in 10 malaria cases including three in 10 cases of life-threatening severe malaria.
Ghebreyesus said that the WHO-coordinated pilot programme was a collaborative effort with the Ministries of Health in Ghana, Kenya and Malawi, including other international partners.
He listed the partners as PATH, a non-profit organisation, and GSK, the vaccine developer and manufacturer which is donating up to 10 million vaccine doses for the pilot phase of the programme.
According to the director-general, the pilot programme is designed to generate evidence and experience to inform WHO policy recommendations on broader use of RTS,S malaria vaccine.
He said that the programme would also look at reductions in child deaths and vaccine uptake including whether parents would bring their children on time for the four required doses.
Ghebreyesus said that the vaccine would be added to the core WHO-recommended measures for malaria prevention which includes routine use of insecticide-treated nets, indoor spraying with insecticides and timely use of malaria testing and treatment.
He said that the pilot programme aims to reach about 360,000 children yearly across countries and the ministries of health would determine where the vaccine would be given.
Dr Matshidiso Moeti, the WHO Regional Director for Africa, said that vaccine remained the strongest tool in reaching children and preventing killer diseases while also commending the development.
Moeti said that malaria was a constant threat in African communities where the vaccine would be administered.
She said that the organisation would ensure it reaches the poorest children who suffered the most and were at highest risk of death.
“We know the power of vaccines to prevent killer diseases and reach children including those who may not have immediate access to the doctors, nurses and health facilities they need to save them when severe illness comes.
“This is, therefore, a day to celebrate as we begin to learn more about what this tool can do to change the trajectory of malaria through childhood vaccination,” Moeti said.
Dr Thomas Breuer, the Chief Medical Officer of GSK Vaccines, said that delivering the world’s first malaria vaccine would help reduce the burden of one of the most pressing health challenges globally.
Breuer assured that the organisation would work with the WHO and PATH to secure the vaccines sustained global health impact in the future.
Mr Steve Davis, the President and CEO of PATH, said that a vaccine for malaria was among many innovations needed to bring an end to the disease.
He said that the organisation was, therefore, proudly throwing its weight behind all countries and partners making progress for a malaria-free world.