Cameroon has launched the world’s first routine vaccination program against malaria, marking a significant step in the battle against a disease that claims hundreds of thousands of lives in Africa annually.
The pioneering effort began on Monday, January 22nd, with the vaccination of a young girl in a health facility close to Yaoundé, Cameroon’s capital.
The RTS vaccine, provided free to infants up to six months old, requires four doses and is administered alongside other routine childhood vaccinations.
Mohammed Abdulaziz of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said, “For a long time, we have been waiting for a day like this.”
The initiative follows successful trials in Kenya, Ghana, and Malawi, which saw a 13% reduction in malaria deaths among children, as per Unicef.
Though the vaccine’s efficacy is around 36%, it represents a substantial advancement in the fight against malaria, a disease that annually kills 600,000 people in Africa, with children under five constituting 80% of these deaths, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
Shalom Ndoula, a Cameroonian doctor who led the vaccine roll-out in his country, told the BBC, “We have a capacity to considerably reduce the number of cases and deaths from malaria and accelerate the elimination of the disease.”
The vaccine’s development by British drugmaker GSK took 30 years of research, and the World Health Organization has lauded its launch as a historic moment in the global fight against malaria.
Despite some public skepticism about the vaccine’s safety and effectiveness, healthcare officials and local leaders are working to alleviate concerns.
Professor Wilfred Fon Mbacham, a public health biotechnology expert specializing in malaria, addressed these concerns, saying, “When people say we are being used as guinea pigs, that’s not particularly true.”
He emphasized the importance of educating the public about the vaccine’s benefits.
The vaccine’s approval comes as Cape Verde celebrates its recent achievement of being declared malaria-free by the WHO, the first sub-Saharan African country to do so in 50 years.
However, with limited doses available and 20 other countries poised to roll out the program this year, the challenge remains substantial.
The introduction of a second vaccine, R21, developed by Oxford University and to be produced by the Serum Institute of India, is eagerly anticipated to increase the availability of doses substantially.
In Cameroon alone, where malaria accounts for six million cases and 4,000 deaths in health facilities annually, the vaccine’s introduction is seen as a crucial step.
In 2021, Africa represents 95% of global malaria cases and about 96% of related deaths.