Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
Health & Science

The world's 1st malaria vaccine gets a green light from the World Health Organization

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The World Health Organization has given the green light for the rollout of the world's first vaccine against malaria. The WHO's director general calls it a historic moment. Malaria kills hundreds of thousands of people every year, and most of those deaths are children under the age of five in Africa. Joining us now to talk about this development is NPR global health correspondent Jason Beaubien.

Hi, Jason.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: So tell us more about this vaccine. Like, just how big of a deal is this?

BEAUBIEN: You know, it is a big deal. Malaria - it not only kills a quarter of a million children in sub-Saharan Africa every year, it makes a lot of other people sick. It hurts the economy. You know, it's a major burden on some of the poorest countries in the world. So for lots of reasons, a malaria vaccine has been this huge goal of health officials. The head of the WHO, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who you just mentioned - he knows a lot about malaria. And he was one of the people gushing about the significance of this today.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TEDROS ADHANOM GHEBREYESUS: I started my career as a malaria researcher. And I longed for the day that we would have an effective vaccine against this ancient and terrible disease. And today is that day - an historic day.

CHANG: Whoa, what is he saying there? Are we talking about eradicating malaria completely - like, wiping it out entirely with this vaccine?

BEAUBIEN: No, not at all.

CHANG: OK.

BEAUBIEN: And that's where this story gets a little bit messy.

CHANG: What do you mean by that?

BEAUBIEN: So yes, this vaccine is a first. But it's got some significant drawbacks. First, it's only about 30% effective at preventing kids from getting hospitalized. Overall, it's only roughly 40% effective in blocking infection, so that's fairly low.

CHANG: Yeah.

BEAUBIEN: Second, it's a complicated vaccine to administer. It's a series of four injections, and the first three shots - they have to be given a month apart to infants after the infants have reached five months of age, and the fourth one - the final injection - then has to be given a year later. And then after all that, the protection from the vaccine wanes fairly quickly.

CHANG: OK. So it's complicated. Why is there so much excitement about this then? Like, why is the WHO calling this historic?

BEAUBIEN: Yeah. I mean, to be clear, this is the first vaccine ever developed against a parasitic human disease. So that's a big deal. Many vaccines - they work against infections from viruses or bacteria. Parasites are far more complex organisms. GlaxoSmithKline has been working on this vaccine since the 1980s, so you can see some of how difficult it has been to develop a vaccine...

CHANG: Yeah.

BEAUBIEN: ...Like this. The other reason there's so much excitement about this is that malaria is so devastating in many of these places. You know, if you could cut out 30% to 40% of the cases, that's a massive win on the public health front. You know, and there's the potential to be saving hundreds of thousands of lives in the years to come.

CHANG: Absolutely. OK, so what happens now? Like, is this vaccine going to be widely available all across Africa?

BEAUBIEN: And again, that's where things are also a bit complicated. It's still not clear where the money's going to come from to fund a wide-scale rollout, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. GlaxoSmithKline says they're going to be making doses available at just over cost. You know, but many of these countries - they don't have the money to be buying one more vaccine right now. So the next step is for the WHO, Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance and other international actors to try to raise money so that it can be widely deployed, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa.

CHANG: That is NPR's Jason Beaubien.

Thank you, Jason.

BEAUBIEN: You're welcome, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.