World’s first malaria vaccine advances in western Kenya

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Lucy Akinyi’s three children were infected with malaria so frequently that she went to the local health clinic in western Kenya every two weeks for treatment.

When offered the chance to protect her children with the world’s first vaccine against the deadly parasitic disease, Akinyi jumped at the chance.

More than 100,000 children in western Kenya, where malaria is endemic, have received the new vaccine against the disease, which kills 260,000 children under the age of five each year in sub-Saharan Africa.

A pilot program has been rolling out the innovative drug, which took 30 years to make, in Kenya, Ghana and Malawi since 2019.

It was approved by the World Health Organization (WHO) for widespread use in children in sub-Saharan Africa and other at-risk regions in October last year.

For Akinyi and her extended family, the vaccine has worked wonders.

She always put mosquito nets over her children while they slept, but despite her best efforts, they still got bitten outside while playing.

“We used to have a lot of malaria in our house. We could be in the hospital three times in a month,” Akinyi said.

But none of her children have tested positive for malaria since they were vaccinated, she said, which brings her great comfort living in a region where the disease is a leading cause of death.

“We are very happy because none of our children are sick,” Akinyi said.

His sister-in-law, Millicent Akoth Oyoya, decided to prod her own children after seeing the benefit to her nieces and nephews.

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“When she (Akinyi) vaccinated her youngest son, that baby never got malaria,” Oyoya said at a clinic as she waited for her nine-month-old son to be vaccinated in the Lake Victoria region.

“So I decided to bring mine as well so it wouldn’t get malaria.”

game changer
Health clinics in western Kenya, where pediatric wards full of malaria-stricken children are not uncommon, are beginning to see results.

Malaria admissions are falling, as is the severity of symptoms.

“Since we started administering the malaria vaccine in September 2019, we have seen a reduction in malaria cases,” said Elsa Swerua, head malaria nurse at Akala Health Center in Siaya County.

“Even children who get malaria are not serious, and the number of deaths from malaria has also decreased.”

Less malaria – the same person can suffer many episodes of the disease each year – means fewer trips to hospital, a boon for families struggling to pay for treatment over and over again.

“Before the vaccine… we spent a lot of money on treatment and shopping and going to the hospital. The cost was high,” Akinyi said.

Now, there is more money to buy food and other essentials, he said.

Dr. Simon Kariuki, director of research at the Kenya Medical Research Institute and a leading malaria expert, said the vaccine was a game changer.

“We show that this vaccine is safe and can be given to young African children who bear the greatest burden of malaria,” he said.

The pilot test had shown that the vaccine could “reduce malaria incidents in young children in these areas by nearly 40 percent,” he said.

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The WHO has recommended that the vaccine be given in a four-dose regimen for children from five months of age in areas with moderate to high malaria transmission.

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