While we’ve been hearing a lot about the COVID-19 vaccine for the past several months, a groundbreaking new vaccine that’s been years in the making just hit the market. The World Health Organization (WHO) just endorsed a malaria vaccine — the first vaccine that effectively protects humans from a parasitic disease.
Malaria is a serious disease caused by a parasite transmitted to humans through bites of infected female mosquitos. Each year, the disease kills more than 400,000 people, many children, mostly in Africa. And like other mosquito-borne diseases, it’s expected to spread to new areas in the next 30 years due to climate change.
There are more than 100 types of malaria parasites, all in the Plasmodium family. The endorsed vaccine, called RTS, S, protects recipients against one of the single deadliest types, called Plasmodium falciparum. Although it’s estimated to be 30 to 40% effective, when combined with other methods like mosquito netting, public health officials expect that it will save thousands of lives.
“Malaria continues to be one of the major killers of children worldwide,” says Dr. William J. Moss, a professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “It’s been an incredibly long journey to get a vaccine to this point.”
Although researchers have been experimenting with malaria vaccines for the last 30 years, it’s been quite the challenge because parasites are historically more difficult to treat than viruses or bacteria. Even if you don’t live in a place where there are common cases of malaria, you might still have some questions: Am I going to need this when I travel? What does this mean for the future of other vaccines?
Here are a few fast facts everyone should know.
Who will be receiving this vaccine?
The vaccine is recommended for children ages five to seventeen months in areas with moderate to high malaria transmission. It likely won’t be used much outside of Africa, and it’s currently not recommended for adults.
American children won’t need to get the vaccine because the U.S. has pretty much eradicated malaria transmission. Although it was once a problem in the United States, in 1947, states, local health agencies and the CDC launched The National Malaria Eradication Program. Today, only around 2,000 cases of malaria show up in the U.S. per year. Most of these cases appear in people who have traveled to countries where the disease is more common.
The vaccination comes in four doses, spaced apart. “The purpose is to provide protection to kids who have not yet built up immunity,” says Moss. Most children and adults in high-risk areas have already likely developed at least partial immunity to certain variations of malaria after years of exposure.
If you’re traveling, will you now have to get a malaria vaccine?
No. Researchers are working on a malaria vaccine for travelers, Moss says, but it has not been authorized. People traveling to areas where malaria is a problem should consult their doctor, but most travelers take an antimalarial drug in the form of a tablet. The type and duration your medication will depend on the country you’re visiting.
Why are parasites so hard to treat? What does this vaccine mean for future vaccines?
When you think of a vaccine, you might think of the Moderna or Pfizer shot for COVID-19, or the iconic Polio vaccine. Each of these offers longterm immunity against a specific virus. Parasites are much more difficult to tackle than viruses; they have more complex life cycles and can easily reinfect the same person multiple times.
The RTS, S, vaccine specifically targets malaria by prompting the body to produce antibodies against a protein present on surface of the infecting parasite. But it’s only so effective because once the parasite enters the body, it has the uncanny ability to shape -shift and evade the immune system.
Since it’s so specific to targeting this parasite, the vaccine can’t just be replicated to target other parasites. But its rollout is still a huge win for medical research, says Moss.
“This is definitely not the end-all for malaria vaccines,” he adds. “This is just the beginning, and I think this vaccine will provide hope and encouragement for further vaccine research for malaria.”