RTS,S malaria vaccine reaches more than 650,000 children in Africa through pilot program

April 21, 2021

Two years on from the launch of a pilot program, more than 1.7 million doses of the world’s first malaria vaccine have been administered in Ghana, Kenya and Malawi, benefitting more than 650,000 children with additional malaria protection, reported the World Health Organization (WHO).

The number of children reached in this relatively short period indicates strong community demand for the vaccine as well as the capacity of the countries’ child immunization programs to deliver the vaccine on a novel schedule (four doses up to about age two years). At a time when global progress in malaria control has stalled, the protection provided by the RTS,S malaria vaccine, when added to currently recommended malaria control interventions, has the potential to save tens of thousands of lives per year.

“Ghana, Kenya and Malawi show that existing childhood vaccination platforms can effectively deliver the malaria vaccine to children, some of whom have not been able to access an insecticide treated bed net or other malaria prevention measures,” says Dr. Kate O’Brien, WHO Director of the Department of Immunization, Vaccines and Biologicals. “This vaccine may be key to making malaria prevention more equitable, and to saving more lives.” 

Insights generated by the pilot implementation will inform a WHO recommendation on broader use of the vaccine across sub-Saharan Africa. Global advisory bodies for immunization and malaria are expected to convene in October 2021 to review RTS,S data and consider whether to recommend wider use of the vaccine.

Meanwhile, the most recent World malaria report found that over the last four years progress in reducing malaria has hit a plateau. In 2019, there were an estimated 229 million malaria episodes and 400,000 deaths from the disease. Over 90% of malaria deaths occur in Africa, the majority — more than 265 000 – in young children.

RTS,S is the first and, to date, the only vaccine that has been shown to reduce malaria in children, including life-threatening severe malaria, related hospital admissions and the need for blood transfusions. The vaccine is currently being piloted in areas of moderate to high malaria transmission where malaria can account for up to 60% of childhood outpatient visits to health facilities.

The Malaria Vaccine Implementation Program supports the country-led introduction of the RTS,S vaccine in childhood immunization; and, separately, the evaluation of how best to reach children with the recommended four-dose regimen, the impact on severe malaria and on lives saved, and vaccine safety in routine use. 

WHO has the release.