When babies are born in western Kenya, where malaria is rampant, many mothers sent home from the hospital carry an important baby gift: insecticide-treated beds.
“Malaria is our number 1 health problem,” said community health worker Mathews Ajwala. Malaria killed more than 400,000 people worldwide in 2019, and two-thirds of them were children under the age of 5 in Africa.
So when the World Health Organization announced on Wednesday that it had approved the world’s first malaria vaccine, African parents, government officials and health workers like Ajwala took the moment as a mile in the fight against such a crisis. Celebrated as stone, which has plagued humans for millennia.
“This vaccine will be a big game-changer,” Ajwala said in a telephone interview.
The vaccine, developed for the first time against any parasitic disease, was widely discussed on social media and on radio and television stations on Thursday. Many across the continent took pride in the fact that African scientists, research institutions and citizens helped provide and interpret the data, which eventually led to the approval of the vaccine. WHO’s support was based on the results of more than 2.3 million doses given to nearly 800,000 children in Kenya, Malawi and Ghana since 2019.
But Africans also understood that a vaccine alone would not solve the problem of malaria.
According to the WHO, in clinical trials, the vaccine, made by British pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline, was effective in reducing severe malaria by only 30% in the first year, although some experts put the figure closer to 50%.
To be effective, four doses of the vaccine must be administered starting at 5 months of age – which can pose logistical problems as distributing vaccines on the continent is already a challenge.
“The vaccine saves lives, but it will not be a silver bullet,” said Githinji Gitahi, CEO of Amref Health Africa, a non-governmental organisation.
While the vaccine is “a huge addition to the fight” against malaria, Geitahi said, health officials will still have to deploy a “Swiss cheese strategy” that includes insecticide-treated bed nets and indoor spraying.