Every year, malaria sickens millions and kills thousands in Malawi, one of the countries worst affected by the disease. With the introduction of the world's first malaria vaccine, the country is stepping up efforts to fight back.
People in Malawi know malaria very well. Those who haven't experienced it themselves have seen it in their family or among their friends. Children under the age of five in sub-Saharan Africa are especially vulnerable, accounting for over 60 percent of all global malaria-related deaths.
Perservere Limbikani, 6-years-old, has severe malaria. She is anaemic and is receiving a blood transfusion at the Ntchisi District Hospital, Malawi. The personal and financial toll for her entire family is high. As well as the agonizing fears for her child's life, costs to get treatment regularly leave families like hers out of pocket.
“It costs us more than a third of our monthly income to pay for treatment, food and transport,” Liksina Jameson, mother of Perservere said.
In recent years, African countries have made progress in the fight against malaria using core disease-cutting tools such as insecticide-treated mosquito nets, indoor spraying with insecticides and antimalarial medicines.
But in some areas, illness and death from this all-so prevalent disease remain stubbornly high.
“We have come to a point where progress has stalled. This is a time when we desperately need a new tool, and we hope that the new malaria vaccine will be that next tool,” Dr Mary Hamel, Lead for the Malaria Vaccine Implementation Programme in WHO said.
Malawi was the first of three African countries to roll out the RTS,S malaria vaccine in selected areas where there is moderate-to-high transmission of the disease. It is the first and, to date, the only vaccine to show partial protection against malaria in young children. Following the roll out in Malawi, vaccination has now started in Ghana and will be introduced in Kenya in the coming weeks.
“People have received the introduction of the vaccine very well,” Haneefa Likaka, Senior Nursing Officer at Malawi's Mitundu Community Hospital said. “A lot of mothers with 5-month-old babies turned up, which gives us a clue that mothers also want to end malaria for their children.”
However, the vaccine is not a silver bullet. Rigorous clinical testing in seven African countries has shown that the vaccine was found to prevent approximately 4 in 10 malaria cases, including 3 in 10 cases of life-threatening severe malaria, which means that existing prevention measures are as crucial as ever.
“I will continue using bednets as protection from malaria,” said Licksina Jamison, mother of 5-month-old Ephridah, who received the malaria vaccine as part of the Malaria Vaccine Implementation Programme.
It will take strong commitment and will from parents, health care workers and leaders, using every available tool, to protect children like Perservere. Everybody has a role to play in bringing an end to this devastating disease.
Led by Ministries of Health in Ghana, Kenya and Malawi, the RTS,S pilot implementation is being funded by Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance; the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, and Unitaid, with overall coordination from WHO. WHO, PATH and GSK are providing additional contributions, with GSK donating up to 10 million doses of the vaccine.
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