Malaria vaccine yields protection

First large-scale test of immunization cuts risk of disease in children receiving it

The first vaccine against malaria to undergo wide-scale testing shows that youngsters who got it were about half as likely to come down with the disease over a 14-month follow-up period as were those who didn’t receive the vaccine.

An international group of scientists report the findings online October 18 in the New England Journal of Medicine. The researchers unveiled data on 6,000 African children, ages 5 months to 17 months, who were randomly assigned to get either a three-dose malaria vaccine or a control vaccine — in this case, for rabies.

“It’s been a long time coming, and indeed we are still not there yet, but it is becoming increasingly clear that we really do have the first effective vaccine against a parasitic disease in humans,” says Nicholas White, a tropical medicine physician at Mahidol University in Bangkok, Thailand, who was not part of this study. “It is a great achievement and an important advance, but [the researchers] know that this partially protective vaccine is not the sole solution to the control and elimination of malaria,” White writes in the same issue of the journal.

The findings bolster earlier test results for this experimental vaccine (SN: 1/3/2009, p. 15). The new trial, which includes more than 15,000 children, is ongoing. The malaria vaccine also reduced cases of severe malaria — the kind that can result in hospitalization. That preliminary finding included additional data, from a group of babies who were 6 to 12 weeks of age at the time they were enrolled in the study. Those younger participants were randomly assigned to get the malaria vaccine or a control shot — an immunization against meningitis. Severe malaria in the two age groups combined, among those getting the experimental vaccine, was reduced by about one-third, slightly less than the researchers anticipated.

Even so, the overall findings represent a milestone in malaria research, says study coauthor Tsiri Agbenyega, a physiologist at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Kumasi, Ghana. “Having worked in malaria research for more than 25 years, I can attest to how difficult making progress against this disease has been. Sadly, many have resigned themselves to malaria being a fact of life in Africa. This need not be the case.”

The study received funding from GlaxoSmithKline Biologicals, maker of the vaccine, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

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