After 30 years in development, the first-ever malaria vaccine has received a positive recommendation from a European Medicines Agency (EMA) committee. GlaxoSmithKline announced this morning that Mosquirix, which has been developed specifically for use on African babies, will go on to be reviewed by the World Health Organization (WHO) before individual governments decide when and how to administer the life-saving drug. According to clinical studies, the vaccine could save hundreds of thousands of lives in Africa, where most of the victims of malaria are under the age of five.
Malaria is a brutal killer. There were over 584,000 deaths in 2013 around the world from the mosquito-borne disease, and 90 percent of those were in sub-Saharan Africa. According to reports from GSK based on public health research, over 80 percent of the deaths occurred in children under the age of five. The vaccine is intended to provide early and lasting protection for children in that region, and it can be administered to infants as young as six weeks and up to 17 months of age. Although the efficacy rates are low, a little protection is still considered significant progress when the mortality rates for children with malaria are so high. The vaccine offers 27 percent protection in infants aged six to 12 weeks, and jumps to 46 percent for ages five to 17 months.
From here, the World Health Organization will review EMA’s assessment and make its own recommendations. It will ultimately be up to individual countries in Africa to decide whether the vaccine will be used within their borders, but WHO endorsement would be an enormous leap forward for a drug that could potentially change the landscape of child welfare in sub-Saharan Africa. Since the drug is not designed for use outside that region, it isn’t being “approved” by these health agencies, but rather given the bureaucratic equivalent of a “thumbs up.” That’ll be good enough for now, since no other vaccines exist to fight malaria. Although malaria is not a contagious disease, case studies show that up to 6,000 cases of clinical malaria could be prevented for every 1,000 children who were vaccinated. If efficacy rates improve with future generations of the drug, those figures could be even higher.