In early October, the World Health Organisation endorsed the use of the world’s first malaria vaccine in Africa. Words like “historic” and “ground-breaking” were used. Perhaps with good reason. The jab could save thousands of children’s lives, especially in Africa.
According to the WHO, in 2019 alone, 409,000 people died of malaria, 94 percent of them in Africa. More than 270,000 of the victims were children under five. One sense of just how bad that number is, is that after 19 months of Covid-19, even accounting for the incompleteness of the data, as at the end of September, the overall deaths due to coronavirus in Africa were 211,853.
While several of the popular Covid-19 vaccines were created in under a year, a record, the malaria vaccine has been a long frustrating toil.
"We've been looking for a malaria vaccine for over 100 years now," Dr Pedro Alonso, director of the WHO Global Malaria Programme said.
One hundred years, it took.
Yet, there have also been what Kenyans called “hecklers”. These experts argue that RTS,S, the vaccine that the WHO approved, has only a 30 percent efficacy in children under the age of five. It also needs four injections and isn’t the one-shot wonder that is thought to work best in places where storage and other infrastructure are a mess.
Proponents, however, say its 70 percent reduction in hospitalisation or death is nothing short of a gift from heaven.
Malaria is estimated to be responsible for an average annual reduction of 1.3 percent in Africa’s economic growth.
Malaria-related absenteeism and productivity losses cost Nigeria an estimated $ 1.1 billion every year.
In Kenya, approximately 170 million working days and 11 percent of primary school days are lost to malaria each year.
However, the most significant thing about the malaria vaccine could be that it has come at the perfect social moment, when the dramatic changes in African society needed it.
Thus, for example, single-parent families (the overwhelming majority single-mother-led) have risen sharply in Africa. The data tells us that in some parts of Africa, up to 70 percent of families are led by a single parent.
In areas where malaria is prevalent, the main reason single parents lose work time, and their children lose school time, is malaria. It is also the disease whose treatment takes up most of their meagre incomes.
With the latest, and surely more to come (there are on average 10 new malaria vaccine trials every year) these families will see their children getting back 70 percent of the school time those who came before them lost, and parents will see about the same level of money put back in their pockets.
The malaria vaccine is also very much one for an Africa challenged by climate change.
In once malaria-free parts of Uganda, that were chilly and vegetation-covered, but are now hot and bare, the disease has been on the rampage, laying to waste a people with low immunity. Can’t imagine the creators of RTS,S would, in their wildest dreams, ever have seen it as an ode to the environment.
Charles Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer, and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”. [email protected]