African governments must seize the opportunity of the malaria vaccine, says Big Win CEO Dr. Kesete Admasu

In a recent op-ed published widely across African media outlets, Big Win CEO Dr. Kesete Admasu celebrated the remarkable results of a new vaccine to combat malaria. The mosquito-borne disease still kills 400,000 people each year, and the majority of these deaths are in African children under the age of five.

The RTS,S vaccine is a game-changer for the battle against malaria, which had stalled at an “unacceptably high level” of deaths, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). If the WHO recommends the vaccine for wider use when global advisory bodies for immunization and malaria convene in October, this new, safe, and effective option will save the lives of millions of children.

The results of the phase three trial for the world’s first and only malaria vaccine showed dramatic reductions in malaria illness and deaths among young children in Mali and Burkina Faso who received the vaccine shortly before the rainy season began, when malaria often surges.

More striking, Kesete wrote, were the outcomes for children who received both the vaccine and seasonal malaria chemoprevention (SMC)—monthly treatment doses of antimalaria drugs typically delivered in door-to-door campaigns during the rainy season. Among the 1,700 children involved in the trial, there was

a 60%-70% reduction in severe disease and hospitalizations…and also more than a 70% reduction in deaths from malaria.

The combination of the vaccine and SMC in countries in the African Sahel—where malaria is especially prevalent during the rainy seasons and is a primary cause of childhood death—would be the biggest breakthrough in the fight against malaria for a generation.

Kesete, who is the former Minister of Health of the Federal Republic of Ethiopia, was a member of a group of African health ministers who in June 2016 supported the funding for an RTS,S vaccine pilot study to learn about its potential as a public health measure. “These new results are heartening,” he wrote.

However, Kesete wrote that governments must prepare for vaccine rollout ahead of the anticipated WHO recommendation next month:

[African governments] must be ready to make smart and strategic decisions to deploy this vaccine, while continuing to promote the use of other proven malaria interventions to maximise impact.

We have seen in COVID-19 what the global health community can accomplish when it comes together to fight a killer disease. It would be a welcome turn of events to see Africa emerge from the pandemic with a new tool to take on the old foe of malaria, with renewed vigour to get progress in malaria control back on track.

Read the full op-ed in Nigeria’s Premium Times.