World's first malaria vaccine is long overdue

Co-ordinated action such as this sets a vital precedent for fighting treatable diseases across the developing world

(FILES) A file photo taken on February 3, 2015 shows Malawians going through a medical checkup by a paramedic from a non-governmental organisation in Makhanga in the southern Malawian district of Nsanje.  Malawi launches on April 23, 2019 the first life-size test of the most advanced experimental vaccine to date against malaria, a disease that causes hundreds of thousands of deaths each year in Africa. / AFP / MAURICIO FERRETTI
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Malaria kills around 435,000 people every year, the vast majority of them children under five in the very poorest parts of Africa. If there was ever a group deserving of international assistance, this is it. Coinciding with World Malaria Day, Malawi this week launched the first large-scale immunisation programme. Soon, Kenya and Ghana will follow suit. As Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, head of the World Health Organisation (WHO), said: "The malaria vaccine has the potential to save tens of thousands of children's lives." This is a historic moment. Quite apart from the thousands of deaths it will prevent, the vaccine is an extraordinary scientific accomplishment, given that it is far harder to immunise against a parasite, such as malaria, than a bacterium or a virus. It also comes at a pivotal moment, when funding for malaria action has plateaued and mosquitoes are becoming increasingly resistant to insecticides. By some estimates, the illness claims the life of one child every two minutes. At last, the world is taking the fight to malaria.

To be clear, this is not a silver bullet. The vaccine is only 40 per cent effective, although it will reduce the severity of symptoms for those unfortunate enough to contract the disease. As a result, authorities must continue to roll out cheap but effective preventative measures, such as mosquito nets. Similarly, there are practical concerns, since the vaccine requires monthly doses for three months and another single dose after 18 months. Administering it must therefore go hand in hand with a public education campaign.

Nevertheless, we should celebrate the collaborative effort between the WHO, local health ministries and GSK, the vaccine's developer and manufacturer. The UAE, for its part, has also long been at the forefront of efforts to counter malaria. Co-ordinated action such as this sets a vital precedent for fighting treatable diseases across the developing world. Beginning this week, 360,000 children will be immunised against one of the globe's biggest killers. It is, quite simply, about time.