Malaria vaccine reaches more than one million children in Africa

HealthAid Bloggers
Blogger, Reporter, Writer
Monday, March 14, 2022

More than one million children in Ghana, Kenya and Malawi have now received at least one dose of the first malaria vaccine. Data provided by the UN's World Health Organisation suggests that the pilot programme launched in April 2019 was safe and "substantially reduced severe cases" of the disease.

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Malaria occupies a unique place in human history. Our neolithic ancestors were afflicted by it; the fall of Rome has even been partially attributed to it. During the 20th Century alone, malaria is estimated to accounted for up to five percent of all human deaths. In this context, thirty years is a metaphorical blink of an eye. But for the researchers who have poured more than half of their careers into developing the world’s first vaccine against malaria it has felt like an eternity.

How Malaria Manifests

Malaria is caused by Plasmodium parasites, which are spread to people through the bites of infected female Anopheles mosquitoes. The first symptoms usually appear within 15 days and, if malaria is treated promptly, most people make a full recovery. However, because these early symptoms – headache, fever and chills – may be mild or confused with other illnesses, people often aren’t diagnosed with malaria until it is too late. Left untreated, P. falciparum malaria can progress to severe illness and death within 24 hours.

According to the WHO, there were roughly 229 million cases of malaria globally in 2019 and 409,000 deaths, with children aged under 5 years accounting for two thirds of these fatalities. Most of these deaths happen in sub-Saharan Africa. P. falciparum is the predominant species, responsible for more than 90% of malaria deaths, but there are four additional species, of which P. vivax poses the greatest threat. It is the dominant species in most countries outside Africa.

Malaria Vaccine Development

Although the link between Plasmodium parasites and malaria was made in 1880, developing an effective vaccine against them has proved extremely tricky. Vaccines work by training the immune system to recognise antigens associated with infectious agents – frequently proteins found on their surface. The malaria parasite also possesses such proteins, but targeting them is complicated by the parasite’s multi-stage life cycle and its active efforts to avoid detection by the immune system.

“Parasites in general, are very complex organisms, and the malaria parasite is no exception,” said Yannick Vanloubbeeck, head of discovery and preclinical R&D at GSK’s vaccines R&D centre in Belgium. “The big challenge is that the parasite actually changes its structure and the proteins it exposes on its surface to escape the immune system.”

When an Anopheles mosquito feeds on the blood of an infected person, blood stage forms of the parasite, called “gametocytes”, enter the mosquito’s gut and begin to reproduce. After 10-18 days of growth, their “sporozoite” offspring migrate to the mosquito’s salivary glands and, when the mosquito next bites a human, these sporozoites are injected into that person’s blood.

From here, the sporozoites migrate to the liver, where they multiply inside liver cells and mature into “merozoites”. These leave the liver and infect red blood cells, where they continue to grow and multiply, destroying the red cells, and then infecting others in a cyclical process. It is these blood stage merozoites that cause the symptoms of malaria. Some of them eventually develop into gametocytes, and when another mosquito bites that individual, the whole cycle begins again.

Although the link between Plasmodium parasites and malaria was made in 1880, developing an effective vaccine against them has proved extremely tricky. Vaccines work by training the immune system to recognise antigens associated with infectious agents – frequently proteins found on their surface. The malaria parasite also possesses such proteins, but targeting them is complicated by the parasite’s multi-stage life cycle and its active efforts to avoid detection by the immune system.

“Parasites in general, are very complex organisms, and the malaria parasite is no exception,” said Yannick Vanloubbeeck, head of discovery and preclinical R&D at GSK’s vaccines R&D centre in Belgium. “The big challenge is that the parasite actually changes its structure and the proteins it exposes on its surface to escape the immune system.”

When an Anopheles mosquito feeds on the blood of an infected person, blood stage forms of the parasite, called “gametocytes”, enter the mosquito’s gut and begin to reproduce. After 10-18 days of growth, their “sporozoite” offspring migrate to the mosquito’s salivary glands and, when the mosquito next bites a human, these sporozoites are injected into that person’s blood.

From here, the sporozoites migrate to the liver, where they multiply inside liver cells and mature into “merozoites”. These leave the liver and infect red blood cells, where they continue to grow and multiply, destroying the red cells, and then infecting others in a cyclical process. It is these blood stage merozoites that cause the symptoms of malaria. Some of them eventually develop into gametocytes, and when another mosquito bites that individual, the whole cycle begins again.

Conclusion

Malaria vaccines are here, and this will alleviate the most challenging disease in Nigeria thereby improving the quality of life for both Nigeria's and Africans alike. We are so excited about this development. Subscribe to our new letters to stay updated about Malaria vaccine and when they will be coming to Nigeria and how to get them.

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