Nursing & Healthcare News

Malaria Vaccine

Historic breakthrough in immunization science

A red and black mosquito sits on someone's skin.

For the first time in history, a vaccine effective against a parasitic infection is ready for real-world deployment. The World Health Organization (WHO) is now recommending widespread use of the RTS,S/AS01 malaria vaccine in regions where the disease is rampant.

The Malaria Menace

While malaria is very rare in the U.S., the mosquito-borne infection remains a deadly scourge in other parts of the world. In 2019 alone, there were 229 million cases of malaria worldwide, and the disease killed more than 409,000 people, most of them young children in sub-Saharan Africa.

The new RTS,S/AS01 malaria vaccine, manufactured by GlaxoSmithKline under the brand name Mosquirix, won’t change that overnight, but proper use of the vaccine reduces cases of life-threatening severe malaria by about 30 percent.

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A 2020 study in PLOS Medicine estimates that the vaccine could prevent 5.4 million malaria cases per year, saving thousands of children’s lives.

Hitting a Tough Target

This vaccine is a major milestone in the century-long struggle against malaria. Although the parasites that cause the disease were first identified 130 years ago, past immunization efforts have had little success. (Development of the RTS,S vaccine took 30 years and cost over $750 million!) Parasitic infections like malaria present daunting challenges for treatment and immunization because the pathogens are much more complex than viruses or bacteria, making them tougher targets.

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Malaria can be caused by five different pathogens (the vaccine protects against Plasmodium falciparum, the deadliest), which have bewilderingly complicated multistage lifecycles. A treatment or preventive measure that’s effective against the parasites at one stage may be ineffective against earlier or later stages — and certain stages actually take place in the mosquitos that transmit the parasites rather than in the bodies of human patients.

Worse, as with bacterial infections, parasites can develop drug resistance, a growing problem.

“A Huge Jump”

Those challenges are why a malaria vaccine, even an imperfect one, is such an important step. “It’s a huge jump from the science perspective to have a first-generation vaccine against a human parasite,” says Pedro Alonso, M.D., director of the WHO Global Malaria Programme.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Ph.D., calls the vaccine “a breakthrough for science, child health and malaria control.”

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