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Malaria: a vaccine against the disease that kills more than 400,000 people a year

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Kuldeep Singh
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Malaria is a life-threatening disease that is cured with hydroxychloroquine, and now it looks like you might have a vaccine. 

On World Malaria Day, we tell you everything you need to know about the disease, the medicine, and the new vaccine.

Despite the fact that there is a treatment and a cure, every year malaria kills more than 400,000 people, most of them children in the sub-Saharan African region. Now a malaria vaccine developed by the University of Oxford was shown to be 77% effective at an early stage in trials, which could be crucial in eradicating the disease.

Study author Adrian Hill, director of the Jenner Institute and professor of vaccinology at the University of Oxford, said he believed the vaccine was the first to reach the World Health Organization’s goal of at least 75% efficacy.

A malaria vaccine has taken much longer to come to fruition because there are thousands of genes in malaria compared to around a dozen in coronavirus, and a very high immune response is needed to fight off the disease.

“That’s a real technical challenge,” Prof Hill said. “The vast majority of vaccines haven’t worked because it’s very difficult.”

However, he said the trial results meant the vaccine was “very deployable” and “has the potential to have a major public health impact”.

What Causes Malaria?

The fault is the female mosquitoes of the genus Anopheles, which if they are infected with parasites of the genus Plasmodium and they bite you, they give you malaria. There are five species of parasites that cause malaria in humans, two of them (P. falciparum and P. viva) being the most dangerous.

What is hydroxychloroquine for?

Hydroxychloroquine is used to prevent and treat acute malaria attacks because it acts by killing the organisms causing malaria. According to MedlinePlus, the website of the United States National Library of Medicine, it is also used to treat some types of lupus, as well as rheumatoid arthritis in patients whose symptoms have not improved with other treatments.

In March 2020, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved an “emergency use authorization” that allowed the distribution of hydroxychloroquine to treat adults and adolescents weighing at least 50 kilos and who are hospitalized with COVID-19, but cannot participate in a clinical study.

However, the FDA canceled the authorization in June because clinical studies showed that the drug is unlikely to be effective in treating COVID-19 in these patients, and some serious side effects, such as irregular heartbeat, were reported.

Malaria in numbers

In 2019, the United Nations estimated that there were at least 229 million cases of malaria worldwide and 409,000 deaths.

Children under 5 years of age are the most vulnerable group affected: in 2019, they accounted for 67% (274,000) of all malaria deaths worldwide.

The African Region bears a disproportionately high share of the global burden of disease. In 2019, 94% of cases and deaths were registered in that region.

World Malaria Day 2021

Despite the difficulties posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the World Health Organization (WHO) welcomes that several countries reported zero indigenous cases of malaria in 2020, while others made “impressive progress” on their way to fight against disease.

This year, WHO and its partners will commemorate World Malaria Day, celebrating countries that are close to or have already achieved malaria elimination. “These countries serve as an inspiration to all nations working to eradicate this deadly disease and improve the health and livelihoods of their populations,” says WHO.

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