The World Health Organization (WHO) on Monday recommended a new malaria vaccine to prevent the disease in children. The injection, called R21/Matrix-M, and developed by the University of Oxford, is the second recommended by the international organization, after RTS,S/AS01, which received the support of the institution in 2021.
The new R21/Matrix-M vaccine will be available to countries in mid-2025, and doses will cost between two and four dollars (1.9 and 3.8 euros), according to the WHO.
A critical global health challenge: ending the biggest malaria emergency in 20 years
This disease, transmitted by the bite of a mosquito, affected 247 million people in 2021. Its worst effects occur in Africa, where it kills nearly half a million children every year. In 2021, it left 619,000 dead in the world, 96% on the African continent. Almost two years ago, in October 2021, the WHO recommended the use of the first malaria vaccine in children, RTS,S (Mosquirix) against Plasmodium falciparum, the deadliest and most common parasite in Africa. The two vaccines have shown similar efficacy in laboratory tests, according to the WHO, so each country will decide which immunization to choose depending on its availability and price. "Today is a great day for health, a great day for science and a great day for vaccines," WHO chief Tedros Adhanom said on social media.
The new R21/Matrix-M vaccine had already been approved for use last April in Ghana, the first country in the world to take this step. The production of the injection will be carried out by the Serum Institute of India. Its chief executive, Adar Poonawalla, told Reuters that his laboratory has already produced 20 million doses, in anticipation of the official WHO recommendation. "We believe that by the end of 2024 there will be no imbalance between demand and supply, with the arrival of our supply."
The WHO has also recommended on Monday the vaccine against dengue called Qdenga, which can be administered to children between six and 16 years in areas where this disease is endemic.
The worst emergency in 20 years
This is an especially significant moment in the fight against malaria around the world. After decades of progress in reducing infections and deaths – up to a 45% drop in mortality between 2005 and 2019, thanks to the introduction of vaccines and insecticide-treated nets, a method that has managed to prevent 68% of cases since the nineties – progress is slowing and current challenges are increasing. The UN issued a warning in August, stressing that progress against malaria has reversed in at least 13 countries and stalled in a few others, especially since 2015. Among the problems that science finds is the resistance to insecticides of mosquitoes carrying the parasite Plasmodium falciparum, which causes 90% of deaths in the world; the fact that rapid diagnostic tests are becoming obsolete and that the risks associated with climate change, such as temperature increases, cyclones and floods, multiply the risk of spreading malaria, in addition to other diseases, such as cholera or polio.
Last month, African Union heads of state and government and global health leaders at the United Nations General Assembly warned that we are facing "the greatest malaria emergency in two decades" and called for urgent action to alleviate it. Dr. Michael Adekunle Charles, executive director of RBM Partnership to End Malaria, a global platform that fights the disease, said in a statement that the current emergency is due to "health pressures such as the COVID-19 pandemic and the global economic recession."
In July, the first malaria vaccine was included in the immunization schedules of 12 African countries, but WHO warned of insufficient malaria supply to meet the 25 million children born each year in malaria-endemic countries.
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