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Vaccine for Malaria: A Game Changer for Africa

25 April is the day set aside by the United Nations as World Malaria Day. In 2021, Africa is still grieving over the 384,000 preventable malaria deaths that happened on the continent in 2020. The statistics for 2021 will be released next year as compilation is ongoing. But even in the midst of these tears, Africa, the global epicentre of the deadly malaria scourge, will soon have a huge reason to smile.

The cheerful news is that a malaria vaccine jab, RTS has passed safety and efficacy tests in clinical trials, and may be globally approved for mass deployment and adoption in national immunisation programmes.

Nigeria and other African countries worse hit by the disease may get more relief and inch near the global zero malaria target with the possible mass deployment of malaria vaccine as early as October this year.

Another malaria vaccine was reported by the University of Oxford team to have proven to be 77 per cent effective in early trials and could be another major breakthrough against the disease. The said vaccine was found to be safe and showed “high-level efficacy” over 12 months of follow-up.

It seems this earth-shaking advancement is in line with the theme for this year’s World Malaria Day which is “Reaching the zero malaria target.” The World health Organisation, The UN health management body came out with this theme because they know and believe that every malaria case is preventable, and every malaria death is unacceptable.

In 2019, the WHO African Region accounted for 94% of both the 229 million malaria cases and 409,000 malaria deaths reported globally. This is despite the great progress made in malaria response in the Region.

Between 2000 and 2019, malaria incidence declined by 29% and deaths by 60%. More than 1.2 billion cases and 7.1 million deaths were averted in the Region. However, lately the Region has been off track by 37% and 25% for the incidence and deaths milestones respectively. While malaria incidence in the Region dropped by 9% to 10% every five years between 2000 and 2015, in the last five years, this has slowed to less than 2%.

Malaria is a life-threatening disease caused by parasites that are transmitted to people through mosquito bites and kill hundreds of thousands of people yearly, mostly children in sub-Saharan Africa.

Director for the malaria vaccine implementation programme at PATH (formerly known as Programme for Appropriate Technology in Health), an international non-profit global health organisation, Scott Gordon, speaking during the second instalment of the Combat Malaria in Africa virtual discussion, noted, “The RTS,S vaccine has been tested in Jos and Enugu in 2010 and 2012. The trial demonstrated efficacy. As of today, Ghana, Kenya and Malawi are conducting clinical trials on the vaccine. Over 1.7 million doses have been administered to over 650,000 children across Africa.”

In Nigeria, the adopted slogan for World Malaria Day 2021 is ‘Stand up and Take Action.’

TheWHO-coordinated programme is a collaborative effort with ministries of Health in Ghana, Kenya and Malawi and a range of in-country and international partners, including PATH, a non-profit organisation, and GSK, the vaccine developer and manufacturer.

Gordon, however, cautioned that regardless of the optimism being generated by the vaccine, there is a need to continue to use other interventions, strengthening strategies and programme linkage in the war against malaria.

In furtherance to this advice that all hand must be on deck to tackle the scourge, many brands got on board to make the 2021 world malaria daya remarkable one. RB Nigeria Limited, a leader in health, hygiene and home care segment, through its number one insect-killer brand, Mortein, organized free malaria test in commemoration of the 2015 World Malaria Day in 15 Key locations across Nigeria.

Speaking at the event, the Marketing Director, RB West Africa, Oguzhan Silivrili, said Mortein has been at the forefront of the fight against malaria in Nigeria via a number of initiatives targeted at empowering Nigerians so that together we can defeat malaria. “We believe malaria can be eliminated in Nigeria which is the reason Mortein owned by RB Nigeria is championing the cause for a malaria-free Nigeria” he added.

Still in commemoration of this year’s World Malaria Day, itel, one of Africa’s topmost smartphones, accessories, and televisions manufacturer also partnered with Amatem Softgel, a leading anti-malaria drug in Nigeria, and Drug-Aid Africa, an NGO that provides medical drug supplies and support to low-income patients in Nigeria and across Africa.

In tandem with theme of this year’s World Malaria Day, the three brands joined the global fight against malaria by donating treated mosquito nets, free medical tests, mosquito repellent cream and free anti-malaria drugs to over 1,500 households in Isale-Akoka Community, Bariga, Lagos state.

Financing for the anti malaria vaccine programme was mobilised through collaboration among three major global health funding bodies – Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance; the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria; and Unitaid, a global health initiative working with partners to bring about innovations to prevent, diagnose and treat major diseases in low and middle-income countries.

Meanwhile, the reported rise in resistance to insecticides and malaria drugs, and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic are said to be threatening plans to eliminate malaria by 2030.There are also growing cases of insecticide and malaria drug resistance in Nigeria.

According to the latest World malaria report, 73 countries reported mosquito resistance to at least one of the four commonly used insecticide classes in the period 2010-2019. In 28 countries, mosquito resistance was reported to all of the main insecticide classes.

However, despite the emergence and spread of mosquito resistance to pyrethroids, insecticide-treated nets continue to provide a substantial level of protection in most settings, a five-country study by WHO revealed.

According to WHO, resistance to antimalarial medicines is a recurring problem. undermining malaria control efforts and reversing gains in child survival.

The body stressed that protecting the efficacy of antimalarials is critical to malaria control and elimination. It also underscored the need for regular monitoring of drug efficacy to inform treatment policies in malaria-endemic countries, and to ensure early detection of, and response to, drug resistance.

The WHO Regional Director for Africa, Dr Matshidiso Moeti, on World Malaria Day 2021 in his massage highlighted that every year, Malaria-related absenteeism and productivity losses cost Nigeria, an estimated US$ 1.1 billion. To change this situation, he feels more needs to be done to help at-risk populations.

He also highlighted new challenges in the continent, such as increasing vector insecticide resistance in the Region. Genetic mutations of the malaria parasite were also recently detected in the Horn of Africa and these could potentially increase false-negative malaria tests. The Anopheles stephensi mosquito, an urban malaria vector, has invaded the Horn of Africa in recent years, with the potential to cause devastating outbreaks in cities and towns.

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He equally stressed that urgent action is needed to stop the scourge of this disease and to get on track towards the global malaria goals of a 90% reduction in cases and deaths by 2030. This includes investment to expand access to malaria interventions for groups that have been left behind, such as children and pregnant women. He also feel smart deployment is also important to protect the effectiveness of malaria tools, along with innovations to proactively address anticipated challenges.

There were some good news on Nigeria’s malaria matters. The 14th Annual Report of the U.S. President’s Malaria Initiative (PMI), which was released on World Malaria Day, indicated that child death rates decreased in Nigeria by 16 percent since 2010 when the United States began providing malaria control support to the country.

During the same period, malaria prevalence has decreased by almost half – from 42 percent in 2010 to 23 percent – according to Nigeria’s most recent National Demographic and Health Survey.

Use of long-lasting insecticide-treated bed nets (LLIN) was identified as one of the most effective measures used to prevent malaria. Since 2010, PMI has supported Nigeria in the distribution of more than 100 million bed nets, which are now in use in 43 percent of Nigerian households, up from just 23 percent at the start of the initiative.