A project in Kenya aimed at inoculating babies and toddlers demonstrates the power of partnership between the public and private sectors in the quest to eradicate a formidable disease.
For decades, the scourge of malaria has taken a fearful toll of Africa’s young and old, decimating lives and crippling economies. Yet good news emerged in September when Kenya began rolling out a vaccine pilot project for babies and toddlers, becoming the third country to introduce the vaccine after Ghana and Malawi.
The vaccine, known as the RTSS, is the first and only vaccine to significantly reduce malaria in children, including life-threatening malaria, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).
Such vaccines can offer particularly effective protection in poorer communities that do not have immediate access to doctors, nurses and health facilities.
It is another prong in a recommended response to malaria, which includes the routine use of insecticide-treated bed nets, indoor spraying with insecticides and timely access to malaria testing and treatment.
The new plan shows the extent to which coordination against the disease is improving in Africa, but there is still a long way to go. Kenya has a malaria incidence of 27% for children under five, according to the director-general of the country’s health ministry.
Africa as a whole still carries a disproportionately high share of the global malaria burden. In 2017, the region was home to 92% of malaria cases and 93% of malaria deaths.
In 2017, five countries accounted for nearly half of all malaria cases worldwide, of which four were in Africa: Nigeria (25%), the Democratic Republic of the Congo (11%), Mozambique (5%), and Uganda (4%). The WHO has noted a worrying recent surge in deaths.
Against such a formidable disease, this scheme is just the beginning. The vaccine will be available to children from six months of age, according to the WHO, and the aim is to vaccinate about 120,000 children per year across the selected introduction areas.
Making an impact
Still, the project shows the impact that can be made when governments, NGOs and the private sector work together – the WHO-coordinated pilot programme is a collaboration with the ministries of health in Ghana, Kenya and Malawi and in-country and international partners, including PATH, a non-profit organisation, and GSK, the vaccine developer and manufacturer, which is donating up to 10m vaccine doses for the pilot.
Funding is provided by Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance; the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria; and Unitaid.
The pilot project could have an impact well beyond Kenya’s borders – it will provide the WHO with a data set to mould policy and could lead to the broader introduction of the vaccine in sub-Saharan Africa, eventually saving tens of thousands of lives.
If Africa is to finally beat the scourge of preventable diseases, such international alliances remain critical.