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World’s first malaria vaccine rollout launched in Cameroon

22 January 2024

The world’s first large-scale immunisation programme of the RTS,S malaria vaccine began today in 42 districts of Cameroon and is expected to deliver 662,000 doses. This marks a significant milestone in child health and the urgent fight against malaria, offering hope for the future for thousands of children.

Stock photo of syringes and vaccines

Malaria is a life-threatening infectious disease, with most clinical and severe cases occurring in sub-Saharan Africa among children under the age of five. In 2022, of the estimated 608,000 malaria deaths, 87 percent were in under-fives. In Cameroon, malaria cases have been rising since 2017 and, currently, 30 percent of all hospital consultations are malaria related.

In the past two years, two vaccines — the RTS,S, developed by GSK, and the R21, developed by Oxford University and the Serum Institute of India (SII) — have become available for the vaccination of children living in regions where malaria is a major health risk. Both vaccines target P. falciparum (the most prevalent malaria parasite in Africa) and have been evaluated in clinical trials. RTS,S received World Health Organisation prequalification status in July 2022 and was successfully piloted in Ghana, Kenya and Malawi, seeing more than 2 million children vaccinated.

Katherine Theiss-Nyland, Malaria Consortium’s Technical Director, commented,

“The programmatic introduction of malaria vaccine in Cameroon is extremely exciting and marks an important milestone in the introduction and utilisation of malaria vaccines in national health programmes. The added benefit of a malaria vaccine, in combination with existing malaria prevention tools, will dramatically reduce severe morbidities and mortality in children — the impact of that cannot be understated. And thanks to the commitment from Gavi and vaccine manufacturers, we can anticipate continued expansion of vaccine coverage across Africa, to meet the demand, and protect all at-risk children.”

The R21 vaccine received WHO prequalification in December 2023, with rollout anticipated between May and June this year. The approved vaccines are being supplied by Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance and, to date, 18 countries have already been approved by Gavi for malaria vaccine introduction with more than 30 countries expressing an interest in introducing a malaria vaccine as part of their national routine health services. Last week, the UK Government announced it will match the first £2 million of new pledges from the private sector to Gavi to help fund future malaria vaccine delivery.

Professor Wilfred Mbacham, Chair of the Board of Trustees for Malaria Consortium, President of the Fobang Institutes for Innovations in Science and Technology and tribal leader of the Funam people in Cameroon said,

“I have prayed and waited that the malaria vaccine will enter routine use during my lifetime and I am about to witness this happen. We need to enlighten, encourage and engage the community to trust, to take and to see for themselves, the benefits of the vaccine because it will save two or three out of every five children who get malaria from developing severe illness or dying from it, especially when combined with other interventions. Its introduction through existing health systems and the community’s participation has the potential to make a substantial contribution to malaria control among children”.

The rollout of a malaria vaccine is a breakthrough moment, but the highest impact will likely be seen when the vaccine is implemented at scale in countries, in combination with existing malaria control measures, including seasonal malaria chemoprevention (SMC), long-lasting insecticidal nets, parasite-based diagnosis and case management.

Previous research has shown exciting potential for increased protection against malaria for young children in combining the RTS,S malaria vaccine with SMC, reducing severe malaria and deaths by 70 percent

Community engagement and behaviour change communication will also be key components in ensuring the success of a malaria vaccination campaign. Malaria Consortium’s current work in Cameroon has already shown that strong community engagement can positively influence the uptake of interventions within conflict-affected communities, which is promising for the introduction and success of new interventions like the malaria vaccine.

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