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In Africa, world health officials roll out first routine malaria vaccine

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

World health officials are celebrating a milestone in the decadeslong fight against malaria. This week, they are starting routine immunizations with the first malaria vaccine ever approved by the World Health Organization. The campaign kicks off in Cameroon. But malaria is a major killer across Africa, and the ultimate target is essentially the entire continent. With us now is NPR global health correspondent Nurith Aizenman. Hi there.

NURITH AIZENMAN, BYLINE: Hi, Juana.

SUMMERS: I mean, this sounds like incredible news. And from what I understand, it's been a long time coming.

AIZENMAN: Yes, this vaccine has been in the making for 30 years. It's called RTS,S. It was developed by GlaxoSmithKline in partnership with global health organizations. And it took so long because the parasite that causes malaria is complex. It's mutating in ways that have also reduced the effectiveness of existing tools against it, insecticide-treated bed nets, medications. Also, the form of malaria that this new vaccine is designed to protect against has been especially devastating to Africa's young children, killing almost half a million kids under age 5 every year. So to have that vaccine finally ready for routine deployment is a historic moment. Mbianke Livancliff is with a nonprofit called Value Health Africa that's helping with the preparations in the first country that's starting this, Cameroon. He says the anticipation there is palpable.

MBIANKE LIVANCLIFF: It has been an excitement throughout the communities. Families were asking us, when is my child going to have this, and when are we finally going to beat malaria?

AIZENMAN: And there are 19 more countries in Africa that are planning to introduce routine immunization with the vaccine this year and next.

SUMMERS: So Nurith, I have to ask you, is this the key to the world finally getting malaria under control?

AIZENMAN: Well, health officials warn that the vaccine is not a magic bullet. The current recommendation is to give it in four separate doses spaced over time, which can be a challenge. And it's only been shown to reduce severe disease in young kids by about 30%.

SUMMERS: And when I hear you say 30%, I mean, that does not sound very effective compared to vaccines against a whole host of other diseases.

AIZENMAN: Right. But health officials note that so many children get malaria in Africa that even with that lowish efficacy rate, the vaccine is expected to save tens of thousands of lives. And that's probably because when a kid gets malaria, it increases their chances of dying from so many other diseases and conditions they might also have - salmonella, HIV, malnutrition. So in the places where the RTS,S malaria vaccine was tested, overall deaths among young children from any cause went down by 13%. Also, officials say the vaccine should be paired with other interventions like bed nets and medications. Here's Kate O'Brien. She heads up a department on vaccines at the World Health Organization.

KATE O'BRIEN: There is no one intervention for malaria that is going to be the one thing that a family needs to do. It's about adding each of these - all of them - somewhat imperfect tools, one on top of the other.

AIZENMAN: And she says from what they're seeing so far, if health workers make a point of communicating that, families do understand and keep up with bed nets and other recommendations.

SUMMERS: So, I mean, millions of people are waiting to get this vaccine. Will there be enough supply?

AIZENMAN: Health officials like Kate O'Brien say yes because late last year, the WHO approved a second vaccine. And Gavi, the international organization that's helping to facilitate and subsidize all this, says they're already working to connect seven African countries with doses of that vaccine. As far as supply goes, health officials say they do expect to be in good shape.

SUMMERS: NPR's Nurith Aizenman. Thank you.

AIZENMAN: You're welcome.

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Nurith Aizenman