Kenya – In a significant development in the fight against malaria, the first malaria vaccine has demonstrated a positive impact in pilot implementations, showing a 13 percent reduction in child mortality.
According to Kenya News Agency, Director of the Department of Immunization, Vaccines and Biologicals at the World Health Organization (WHO), this advance is a result of integrating the malaria vaccine into existing control interventions.
Dr. O’Brien explained that the reduction in mortality among children eligible for vaccination was observed even with coverage rates of about 64-74 percent, indicating the potential for greater impact with increased coverage. The data reflects progress in Kenya, Ghana, and Malawi, where the pilot implementation of the malaria vaccine was conducted to combat the mosquito-borne disease.
In Kenya, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports an estimated 3.5 million new clinical cases of malaria and 10,700 deaths annually, with those in Western Kenya facing particularly high risks. The WHO-recommended vaccines, RTS, S/AS01, have been proven safe and effective in preventing malaria in children and are expected to significantly impact public health when broadly implemented.
Dr. O’Brien also highlighted plans for expanding the vaccine’s reach. Nine additional countries in sub-Saharan Africa — Uganda, Burundi, Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Liberia, Niger, Benin, Burkina Faso, and Sierra Leone — are set to introduce the vaccine into their routine immunization programs starting in early 2024. Furthermore, with a WHO policy recommendation in place for a second malaria vaccine, R21/Matrix-M, more countries are preparing for its introduction, pending WHO prequalification.
The impact of these vaccines extends beyond malaria. Dr. O’Brien also addressed global health advancements in the prevention of cervical cancer, noting the growing momentum of human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccination programs. She reported a rise in global HPV vaccination coverage and the inclusion of the HPV vaccine in national schedules in countries like Nigeria, Bangladesh, Cambodia, and Indonesia. The upcoming introduction of HPV vaccination in India and Pakistan, and DRC’s National Immunization Technical Advisory Group’s recommendation to add the HPV vaccine to its national schedule, signify major strides in combating cervical cancer.
However, Dr. O’Brien expressed concern over measles resurgence globally, with increased cases and deaths reported. Despite a slight increase in measles vaccination coverage, it remains below the 2019 level. Outbreaks have been reported in various regions, from affluent to middle-income countries. She warned that declining vaccination rates could lead to the reemergence of other serious vaccine-preventable diseases.
In response, Dr. O’Brien emphasized the need for more support to countries under ‘The Big Catch-Up’ initiative to re-establish routine vaccination programs, improve coverage, and reach the most marginalized populations, to prevent large-scale outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases.