Human Achievement of the Day: Malaria Vaccine

You may remember last year when the Human Achievement Hour blog highlighted mosquito-zapping lasers which selectively kill female, blood sucking mosquitoes and reduces the spread of malaria. This invention was needed, in part, as Michelle noted, due to the unfortunate demonization of DDT. “[Malaria, the mosquito-borne blood infection sickens more than 250 million people every year and kills a child every 43 seconds. Though DDT had been extremely successful in eradicating malaria in many parts of the world, baseless environmental concerns ultimately resulted in the banning of the technology, resurgence in the spread of malaria, and skyrocketing numbers of people infected.”

While DDT has since been re-legalized, many countries, particularly African nations, are wary of using the chemicals. “This year, researchers have made even more advances in finding non-chemical means to protect humans from the deadly virus, creating  a vaccine which may eliminate the need for lasers and other mosquito-vanquishing means altogether.

For the past several decades, researchers have been searching for a vaccine for malaria, but GlaxoSmithKline is the furthest along. The pharmaceutical company developed a malaria vaccine which, as of October 2011 trials, has been able to reduce the risk of the disease in young children by half.

Malaria is spread through infected mosquitoes that bite humans and inject parasites into the bloodstream, causing high fever and vital organ shutdown. Small children with developing immune systems are especially susceptible.

The trial study, started in 2009, has been tried on over 15,000 children in Burkina Faso, Gabon, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique and Tanzania. Researchers are focusing on two age groups, one of 5-17 month-old children, and the other, infants aged 6-12 weeks. Earlier vaccination allows for better protection, and convenience, as this is the age when children in Africa are vaccinated against other diseases.

Although these are partial results, as the trials are ongoing, it shows promise for a particularly tricky form of vaccination against a major killer. Generally vaccines work to prevent bacterial and viral infections, but the GlaxoSmithKline vaccine works against parasites, which can be more complicated. There are five kinds of malarial parasites, and GlaxoSmithKline is focusing on the deadliest.  No doubt research will be ongoing into how best to stop all parasitic forms of the deadly disease.

Funding for the development of the vaccine comes not just from the pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline, but also the PATH Malaria Vaccine Initiative, a program funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.