New Vaccine Could Prevent 600,000 Deaths A Year From This Illness

Malaria vaccine trials prove promising in massive human trial in Africa.

(Photo by Sean Warren)

Oct 14, 2013· 2 MIN READ
Shaya Tayefe Mohajer is TakePart's News Editor.

When I was 19, I took off to Peru for a few weeks to soul-search in that totally sincere (and totally cliched) way that teenagers do. I remember getting a bunch of shots, filling a prescription for malaria prevention pills and buying a flight to Lima with the cash I'd earned from a summer office job.

The trip was tough at times, with altitude sickness marring my stay in the gorgeous Cuzco and the discomforts of being a vegetarian in a place where guidebooks warn against eating raw fruits or vegetables.

But by far, the worst part of the trip was eating a giant pill to ward off malaria every week, a treatment that left me feeling woozy, fatigued and struggling to climb and camp on the Inca Trail on the way to Macchu Piccu. It goes without saying that people who live in places where malaria is rampant have it a lot tougher than I ever did.

But I knew enough about malaria to know I didn't want it, and the pill's side effects were a small price to pay for safety.

Once the trip was over, I was thrilled to know I would never have to swallow another dose of Lariam again. Such is the luck of someone who lives in the U.S., where the disease is so rare that only 1,500 people a year get it here.

Now, there's great news for countries where malaria dangers are prevalent: Early word is that an 18-month trial of a malaria vaccine has shown effectiveness in children—a feat that could change the world, or at least half of it.

That's right: Half the world’s population is at risk for malaria, many of whom don't even get access to the harsh medicines I detested.

Although it’s mostly preventable and curable, malaria kills more than 600,000 people a year. Most of those deaths are among African children under the age of 5, according to the World Health Organization.

Most cases occur in sub-Saharan Africa, but cases also crop up in Asia and Latin America, and are seen to a lesser extent in the Middle East and Europe.

The victims get bitten by mosquitos that transmit parasites, which then multiply in the liver causing fever, fatigue, chills and, sometimes, cardiovascular collapse, kidney failure and death.

There are commonsense measures that families can take to help prevent mosquito bites, too, like installing sleeping nets to sleep under—something Chris Helfrich's organization Nothing But Nets helps do.

"Is it the only thing we need to be doing to eradicate malaria from the face of the earth? No, but it’s one critical tool to preventing malaria and it’s cost effective," he said in a phone interview with TakePart.

Paired with an effective vaccine, malaria could be all but eradicated.

The trial for GlaxoSmithKline's vaccine has been conducted at 11 research centers in seven African countries, and involved more than 15,000 patients, and found that in the young children who got the vaccine there were 46 percent fewer cases of malaria.

Having a vaccine would mean that there are fewer opportunities to forget an expensive pill, fewer hindrances to repeated access to medicine, and fewer instances where bad reactions to current medicines would hamper a person's ability to lead a normal life.

It's worth noting that long-term use of malaria pills like the one I took are not recommended—even if they're just being taken during the high seasons for mosquito exposure—because they are so powerful they can cause organ damage.

The pills tourists take to travel to malaria prone places "wreak some havoc on your body with some consistency, you can’t take them every day a year, or every day your whole life, and secondly, they’re expensive so when you’re trying to treat malaria a $10 bednet is a great solution," Helfrich said.

GSK has spent more than $350 million over the past 25 years to find a vaccine for travelers and the military, according to the New York Times. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation provided $200 million more to bolster pediatric trials.

If it works, it will be the first time a vaccine has ever been proven effective against a disease-causing parasite—which is a lot tougher to beat than viruses or bacterial infections. The vaccine's use could be seen as early as 2015.

Which means more of the world could start feeling as lucky as I do when it comes to safety from malaria—something I'd love after finding soul among those people in far-off places.