Major breakthroughs in the development of vaccines for major diseases including malaria and HIV/Aids are expected this year.
Already, the World Health Organisation has said it will approve the Ebola Zaire vaccine, V2920, after assessing it. If successful, the vaccine, developed by the pharmaceutical firm Merck, could be used during emergencies.
“This application to the WHO is an important step toward enabling V2920 to be used if a public health emergency of international concern were to be declared for the Ebola Zaire prior to licensure of the vaccine candidate,” said Paula Annunziato, Merck’s vice-president for clinical research.
When Ebola struck West Africa in early 2014, the response from the rest of the world was at best lukewarm, despite experts warning that neglecting infectious disease anywhere posed a threat everywhere.
The trials of another Ebola vaccine (VSV-Zebov) are being conducted at the Kenyan Coast and in Gabon under a programme funded by the Wellcome Trust and the final results are expected this year.
2016 will also be a year the WHO will evaluate the malaria vaccine RTS,S, expected to cut by half the number of deaths in children under five in Africa. The vaccine is under a pilot trial to evaluate its efficacy.
The final results from a large-scale Phase III trial of the RTS,S candidate, including the impact of a booster dose show that it helped protect children and infants from clinical malaria for at least three years after the initial vaccination. The WHO however, indicated that RTS,S will initially be rolled out on a pilot basis, given its limited efficacy.
If approved, RTS,S will be the first malaria vaccine for use that will give hope to the East African region in its efforts to eliminate malaria, adding to existing interventions, such as insecticide-treated bed nets and anti-malarial drugs.
Researchers will also be looking for the cause of nodding syndrome that has, over the years, affected children in northern Uganda.
Nodding sydrome is a neurological illness, which affects mainly 5-15-year-olds, and manifests in involuntary nodding of the head, followed by epileptic seizures, saliva dripping, degenerated cognitive abilities, stunted growth and in some cases, death or failure to develop secondary sexual characteristics.
It has been ravaging parts of northern Uganda, particularly Pader, Kitgum, Lamwo and Gulu districts, where more than 3,000 children have been infected and dozens have died.
2015 had come with new hope for people suffering from sickle cell anaemia following the discovery of a permanent cure for the terminal disease, which affects over a million people in sub-Saharan Africa.
The new treatment involves bone marrow transplants and does not need chemotherapy, making it less risky for adults, often thought to be too weak to survive chemotherapy. The WHO is expected to confirm the study findings and approve the cure.
Sickle cell anaemia is an inherited blood disorder that arises from a genetic defect that alters the structure of haemoglobin (the oxygen carrying protein in the red blood cells). The modified haemoglobin causes round blood cells to become stiff, sticky and sickle shaped. The deformed cells can block blood flow, causing severe pain, organ damage and stroke.
East African countries from next year are also expected to start implementing the revised WHO guidelines for HIV treatment.
The new “test and offer to treat” approach will ensure that people living with HIV can benefit from early treatment. In September, WHO recommended that all people living with HIV start ART as soon as possible after diagnosis.
Before the new recommendations HIV-positive patients got antiretroviral therapy only when their white blood cell levels dropped.