Malaria Vaccine Now Recommended by WHO 

Malaria Vaccine Now Recommended by WHO 

Malaria has been back in the news for two reasons. Firstly, Arsenal footballer Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was treated in hospital for the disease whilst in Gabon (West Africa) earlier this year. Secondly, a groundbreaking announcement from the World Health Organization has recommended the widespread use of a malaria vaccine in children. This severe disease, caused by the malaria parasite, sadly still claims the lives of hundreds of thousands every year, most of whom are children. This new recommendation for vaccination in countries with the highest disease burden could save the lives of thousands – and prevent the illness in many more.

What causes malaria?

Malaria is not caused by a virus or a bacteria, but by a type of single-celled organism called a protozoan. And the specific protozoan that causes the most severe strain of malaria is called Plasmodium falciparum. Of course, you may have heard that mosquitos cause malaria. However, that isn’t strictly true…nor is it entirely false, either.

The malaria parasite enters the human body by being injected during a bite from an infected mosquito. The Plasmodium falciparum parasite is the target of this novel vaccine. For a more detailed lowdown on the cause of malaria and the two vaccines, readers are welcome to look at our in-depth overview of the malaria vaccines and why they’re so desperately needed.

How effective is the vaccine?

There are two main malaria vaccines being studied at present. The first is the “RTS,S” vaccine. This type is the most extensively researched and is specified by the new recommendations. A second contender, “R21” has also shown promising results in recent studies.

The efficacy of a vaccine is how good it is at preventing disease in ideal and controlled conditions, such as in a clinical trial. In contrast, the effectiveness of a vaccine is how well it works to prevent disease in the real world. Encouragingly, RTS,S has been shown to have 56% efficacy and 40% effectiveness, and crucially reduces severe (deadly) malaria by 30%.

What do the recommendations say?

According to the latest info, the WHO now recommends that the RTS,S vaccine is to be used to prevent Plasmodium falciparum malaria in children. However, this is specifically for locations with a moderate-to-high spread of the disease. The latest research suggests that the vaccine should be given in a schedule of four doses in children from five months old.

Baby receives a RTS,S malaria vaccine dose in Ghana
A baby receives a dose of RTS,S in Ghana in 2019. Image credit: Cristina Aldehuela/AFP/Getty via

The spacing out of vaccines allows the level of antibodies developed to grow, before the next shot is given. Which, means that your body slowly develops the capability to fight the disease on its own, over time. As such, this schedule is the recommendation of the two WHO global advisory bodies for both malaria and immunisation.

Does it have any side effects?

According to the WHO, the side effects of RTS,S are similar to other childhood vaccines. So, you can expect to see some swelling and pain at the site of the injection. There may also, rarely, be fever-related seizures in some children. However, you’ll be pleased to know that all children who suffered such seizures during the trials fully recovered with no lasting effects.

WHO Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus announces the vaccine recommendation. Video via the Guardian on YouTube

Over 2.3 million doses of the vaccine have been given in 3 different African countries so far. The results of which give the vaccine a safety profile of ‘favourable’. Even better, it has also been deemed cost-effective. This is especially important in resource-poor settings such as some countries in sub-Saharan Africa, where malaria is rife.

The vaccine will prevent illness and death from malaria

The Director of the WHO Malaria Programme, Dr Pedro Alonso, praises this exciting development in places where malaria is common. He states, “We’ve been looking for a malaria vaccine for over 100 years now. It will save lives and prevent disease in African children.” Given that malaria is one of the deadliest diseases, that affects over 200 million people a year, the results of this vaccine can be phenomenal.

Most importantly, this vaccine has been reported to prevent 4 in 10 malaria cases. This means it will not only prevent deaths but illness too. Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa, stated that the new recommendation “offers a glimmer of hope for the continent which shoulders the heaviest burden”. She emphasises what this means for people’s futures, continuing we expect many more African children to be protected from malaria and grow into healthy adults“.

What’s next in the fight against malaria?

The global health community will need to make funding decisions for a wider rollout of this vaccine. Individual countries will also need to decide whether to use it as part of their existing malaria control efforts.

The vaccine won’t replace the need for other measures such as bed nets treated with insecticide to prevent mosquito bites. However, it does bring the world one step closer to the goal of zero malaria deaths.

Please note, despite these new recommendations, travellers to areas where malaria is common are still required to take malaria prophylaxis. Be sure to check the latest guidelines and country pages from the National Travel Health Network and Centre (NaTHNaC).



Stef is a medical doctor and public health specialist, with a passion for the prevention of illness. When she isn't working at her day job or trying to keep her plants alive, she often has her nose in a book or goes for a walk with an audiobook for company.

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