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The World Health Organization approves the first malaria vaccine

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

There is huge news in the world of vaccines. We're not talking about COVID, though. Scientists have been trying for generations to find a vaccine for malaria, and they have finally done it. The World Health Organization is recommending the vaccine after a large-scale pilot program found it was safe and reasonably effective in blocking infections in children in three African nations. It could be deployed as early as next year. NPR global health correspondent Jason Beaubien has the story.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: The vaccine known as RTS,S was first developed in a GlaxoSmithKline laboratory in 1987, but it's taken decades to get it to the point where it can be deployed broadly in malaria-endemic parts of the world. Malaria is caused by parasites, which are far more complex organisms than the viruses or single-celled bacteria usually targeted by vaccines. In announcing that the World Health Organization is greenlighting RTS,S, the head of the WHO, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said this vaccine could change the course of public health history.

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TEDROS ADHANOM GHEBREYESUS: This long-awaited malaria vaccine is a breakthrough for science, child health and malaria control.

BEAUBIEN: The worst burden of malaria continues to be felt in sub-Saharan Africa, where the disease claims hundreds of thousands of lives every year.

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MATSHIDISO MOETI: For centuries, malaria has stalked sub-Saharan Africa.

BEAUBIEN: Matshidiso Moeti, the WHO's regional director for Africa, said Africans have long-wished for an effective shield against malaria.

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MOETI: Today's recommendation, therefore, offers a glimmer of hope for the continent.

BEAUBIEN: But officials even within the WHO's own malaria control program warn that this vaccine is not a magic bullet. First, it's only about 30% effective in preventing hospitalizations and only 40% effective in blocking infections of the potentially deadly disease. But given how many kids get sick with malaria every year, widespread use of RTS,S could prevent hundreds of thousands of cases.

The second major issue with this vaccine is that it's complicated to administer. It has to be given to infants through four injections spread out over the course of 13 months. It's not as easy as giving a child a pill or adding another jab while doing the measles, mumps and rubella immunization. And finally, it's not yet clear where the money's going to come from to fund malaria vaccination campaigns.

ASHLEY BIRKETT: One thing that's really important to remember is this vaccine is a vaccine for the poorest of the poor.

BEAUBIEN: Ashley Birkett is the head of malaria vaccine development at the nonprofit PATH. PATH worked with GlaxoSmithKline to advance RTS,S through years of studies, clinical trials and pilot programs in Africa.

BIRKETT: It requires continued investment to scale up the vaccine, to ensure that we've got the volumes of vaccines that are needed to meet the projected demand of the vaccine. So there's still much work to do.

BEAUBIEN: Studies continue in Ghana, Kenya and Malawi on just how much benefit comes from the fourth dose of the vaccine and also on how long this new tool provides protection against an ancient disease.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF EMANCIPATOR'S "MINOR CAUSE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.