CAMEROON — Shipments of the world’s first WHO-recommended malaria vaccine, RTS,S, have commenced, marking a pivotal moment in the fight against malaria.

The initial delivery of 331,200 doses arrived in Yaoundé, Cameroon, extending the vaccination effort beyond countries involved in the malaria vaccine pilot program.

This milestone signals the start of a broader scale-up of vaccination efforts targeting the highest-risk areas across the African continent.

Malaria remains a critical global health concern, causing significant mortality, especially among children under five.

In 2021, there were 247 million malaria cases globally, resulting in 619,000 deaths. The burden of malaria is particularly acute in Africa, accounting for approximately 95% of global malaria cases and 96% of related deaths in 2021.

The shipment to Cameroon is the first step in a comprehensive vaccination initiative. An additional 1.7 million doses of the RTS,S vaccine are expected to reach Burkina Faso, Liberia, Niger, and Sierra Leone in the coming weeks.

Several African countries are in the final stage of preparations for the introduction of the malaria vaccine into routine immunization programs, with the first doses anticipated to be administered in Q1 2024.

The complexity of introducing a new vaccine involves extensive preparations, including training healthcare workers, investing in infrastructure, ensuring technical capacity, managing vaccine storage, engaging communities, and addressing demand.

The RTS,S vaccine presents an additional challenge with its four-dose schedule, requiring meticulous planning for effective delivery.

Positive impact of pilot program

Since 2019, Ghana, Kenya, and Malawi have been administering the vaccine through the Malaria Vaccine Implementation Programme (MVIP).

Over 2 million children have received the vaccine, resulting in a notable 13% reduction in all-cause mortality for eligible children.

The pilot program demonstrated high vaccine uptake with no decline in other malaria prevention measures or the use of other vaccines.

The success of the RTS,S vaccine paved the way for a second malaria vaccine, R21, manufactured by the Serum Institute of India.

Currently under WHO review for prequalification, the availability of two malaria vaccines is expected to meet the high demand in African countries, providing sufficient doses for all children in malaria-prone regions.

A comprehensive approach

While malaria vaccines represent a significant breakthrough, they are not standalone solutions.

The WHO-recommended package for malaria control includes various measures such as insecticide-treated nets, indoor residual spraying, intermittent preventive treatment in pregnant women, antimalarials, effective case management, and treatment.

Implementing vaccines alongside these interventions can strengthen overall access to malaria prevention measures.

Key stakeholders, including Gavi, WHO, UNICEF, and partners, are collaborating with countries expressing interest or confirming rollout plans, preparing for the scaled-up vaccination that has the potential to save tens of thousands of lives each year.

Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa, highlighted the vaccine’s significance in reversing the rising trend in malaria cases and reducing deaths.

The global community looks toward scaling up malaria vaccination efforts to protect millions of vulnerable children at risk of malaria.

“This could be a real game-changer in our fight against malaria,” remarked UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell, echoing the sentiment of optimism and progress in the battle against this deadly disease.

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