x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Vaccine could save 200,000 children

It will take a multi-pronged approach to achieve the goal of eradicating malaria.

Ridding the world of malaria has been a long-held dream for the millions of people whose children are imperilled by the mosquito-borne disease. It has also been a goal harboured by their governments and aid organisations.

With the preliminary results from the first large-scale malaria vaccine trials in babies suggesting it has the potential to avert 200,000 deaths in Sub-Saharan Africa each year, it seems as if that eradication might finally go from being a hope to a reality.

Even more significantly, developers GlaxoSmithKline have indicated the vaccine, known as RTS, S, will be made available for little more than cost price so that the communities in most need can afford to use it, especially with the help of foreign aid programmes such as the UAE’s.

This news is welcome on many levels, but a vaccine will only ever be one part of the strategy to combat malaria.

Firstly, the vaccine is far from being a silver bullet solution. In the initial test on 15,000 babies in 11 communities in seven African nations, the incidence of the disease was reduced by about 46 per cent.

However the vaccine is less effective in the youngest of those who took part in the trial, which involved babies aged up to 18 months. For those under the age of five months, the incidence was reduced by only 27 per cent and there are indications that the vaccine’s effect fades over time.

Those are still tremendous results. An estimated 600,000 children die of malaria every year in Sub-Saharan Africa so this could save 200,000 lives a year. Other vaccines in the pipeline might be even more effective.

Secondly, success will come from combining the vaccine with other strategies. These include educating communities to be vigilant about reducing the amount of standing water where mosquito larvae can thrive and about the need for simple and cheap low-tech solutions, such as ensuring children sleep under chemically treated mosquito nets.

In this area, women’s education and empowerment are key. Mothers who have been taught about the health risks and the ways to mitigate them are a powerful force for improving the survival rates for their children.

Here our country is well-positioned to help: as a leader in foreign aid (as noted at the top of this column) and in expanding female education in the developing world, the UAE is also playing an important role in the fight against malaria.