Researchers are tantalizingly close to achieving a medical breakthrough that has eluded humanity for more than 50,000 years: a vaccine for malaria, the deadly mosquito-borne disease that claimed an estimated 781,000 lives in 2009—most of them children.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation announced Tuesday that the results of the longest-ever clinical trial of a malaria vaccine showed that the new shot—known as RTS,S—cut malaria cases by about 50 percent in the 12 months after it was administered to infants in seven African countries.
“First, this is proof that it is possible to create a vaccine that is effective against malaria,” said Bill Gates. “Second, if further results show that the effectiveness of RTS,S does not wane over time, it has the potential to protect millions of children and save thousands of lives.”
According to the World Health Organization, there were 225 million cases of malaria and an estimated 781 000 deaths in 2009. Most of those killed were children living in Africa—a child dies of malaria every 45 seconds on the continent.
Insecticide-treated bed nets and other mosquito-control techniques are currently the most powerful tools in the fight to prevent the spread of the disease.
“The addition of a malaria vaccine to existing control interventions such as bed nets and insecticide spraying could potentially help prevent millions of cases of this debilitating disease,” said Andrew Witty, the CEO of GlaxoSmithKline, which is helping develop the vaccine. “It could also reduce the burden on hospital services, freeing up much-needed beds to treat other patients who often live in remote villages, with little or no access to healthcare.”
More data on the vaccine’s long-term efficacy is due by the end of 2014.