A Potential Breakthrough in Malaria Prevention

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Parents of infants in sub-Saharan Africa, where a million or more die each year, have new hope, thanks to a group of multinational researchers, led by Dr. John J. Aponte of the University of Barcelona and colleagues from Mozambique. They evaluated a new malaria vaccine's safety and efficacy in 214 infants in rural Mozambique, an area of high incidence of malaria, and found that the vaccine against Falciparum malaria, the most severe form, reduced the rate of new infections by almost two thirds. The vaccine also delayed the timing of first infection, another important determinant of overall severity. The study was published in The Lancet today, in an early-release, online only version.

The vaccine was administered in three doses along with the infants' other routine vaccinations, over the course of their first four months of life. The study families also received insecticide-treated bednets, a standard means of helping to prevent malarial mosquitoes from spreading the deadly parasite. In addition, indoor residual spraying, likely with DDT, was also done at the usual intervals, commonly twice a year.

Two other important aspects of the study also provide support for the imminent use of this vaccine: it was found to be quite safe, with no untoward side effects, and it provoked a strong immune response among those vaccinated, which makes sense since the infection rate was so reduced. The same authors previously found similar results among children aged one to four in that region, although the degree of reduction in new infections was somewhat less, about 45% lower in that age group.

Malaria kills between one and three million people worldwide each year -- consider that staggering figure for a moment, so as to not get lost in the above statistics. If the vaccine proves to be as safe and effective in widespread use as this study indicates, and the local health authorities are able to administer it to the impoverished populations at risk, the number of lives saved would be counted among the greatest public health achievements of all time. The world's gratitude would have been well-earned by the researchers, as well as Glaxo SmithKline, the UK-based pharmaceutical company that developed the vaccine.

Gilbert Ross, M.D., is Executive and Medical Director of the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH.org, HealthFactsAndFears.com).