Malaria vaccine is a breakthrough

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 October, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 October, 2011, 12:00am


A vaccine with a 47 per cent success rate reportedly left scientists who developed it in tears at the result of 25 years' work. That sounds like a sad story - vindication of the scepticism of many of their peers who thought they were attempting the impossible. In fact it was a good news story that brought Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and former Hong Kong health chief Margaret Chan Fung Fu-chun, now director general of the World Health Organisation, together at a forum in Seattle where it was announced.

The vaccine is for malaria, a debilitating mosquito-borne disease which kills nearly 800,000 people a year, mostly children under five in Africa. The scientists were shedding tears of relief at the results of the first large-scale trial of a vaccine known as RTS, which protected nearly half of 6,000 children aged five to 17 months from severe malaria.

Gates, one of the world's richest men, was there because the charitable foundation he and his wife set up helped fund the research and the clinical trials. Chan was there because, if the early promise is borne out by further results - including the longevity of protection - the WHO will recommend its use.

Nearly half the world's population is at risk of malaria. Many in impoverished regions of sub-Saharan Africa do not have access to modern treatments. The Global Fund to Fight Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria aims to control if not eliminate the disease as a public health problem in most affected countries by distributing insecticide-treated mosquito nets and more than 140 million anti-malarial drugs, backed up by indoor residual spraying.

But this approach depends heavily on the human element, or co-operation by the millions most at risk. A vaccine would make a real difference - particularly as British drug maker GlaxoSmithKline, which has poured more than US$300 million into the research so far, has promised to sell it at a fraction over cost price, making it accessible to those who need it most.