On October 6, the world made great strides against malaria, when the World Health Organisation approved use of Mosquirix, the vaccine against the malaria parasite that Glaxo-SmithKline has been trialing over the past six years.
Commentators have heralded the announcement as the conclusion of a century-old effort to find a preventive vaccine to one of the world’s most deadly diseases. Endemic in the tropics, malaria kills anywhere between half a million and three quarters of a million people, most of them children, every year.
The John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health attaches a $12 billion annual price tag to the economic cost of malaria, factoring in the costs of health care and lost productivity. The school further observes that though treatable, malaria infection at its most severe can result permanent damage to the brain, coma, and even death.
Ninety-four percent of malaria’s victims, most of them children under five years, live in sub-Saharan Africa. It should perhaps not be surprising then, why the region appears to be trapped in a vicious cycle of stunted development.
Despite being available only for children at birth for now, Mosquirix is still a worthy investment. It frees future generations from the limitations imposed by malarial and liberates the time and resources that would otherwise be dedicated to care of those infected. In some scenarios where malaria can account for as much 70 percent of the disease burden, the possibilities opened by Mosquirix are awesome.
In 2011, a report by Roll Back Malaria found that 72 percent of companies in Africa had suffered a negative malaria impact while three quarters of companies in Africa that participated in a survey in 2004, said malaria had negatively affected their business.
Malaria also keeps poor households losing as much as a quarter of their income to the disease. Most victims also tend to be women and children – the former exacting a heavy toll on family welfare and the latter losses in future productivity and potential.
The savings that will accrue from mass rollout of the jab can be used to address other pressing needs of health sector.
There is a caveat to the latest breakthrough and it is not yet time for African governments and development partners to let the guard down. For now, the vaccine only addresses part of the problem since there is a huge demographic out there that is not eligible for the vaccine. That means existing malaria control measures remain very much relevant and governments will need to invest in adequate malaria control, prevention and treatment. Although Glaxo-SmithKline has taken the plaudits for the breakthrough vaccine, the company acknowledges that this has been a collaborative effort involving many scientists in endemic regions. It would be only fair that the efforts of these individuals are recognised through acknowledgement of their personal contribution to the research.
That is important because collaboration in research needs to continue to improve the efficacy of the current jab and to explore ways in which it can be useful to the adult population. Such a development would also be a major milestone because for now, some of the benefits of the jab are deferred to that date in the future when vaccinated children will become of age.