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Kenya’s announcement to expand use of landmark malaria vaccine gives hope to millions

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(LONDON) — Kenya’s Ministry of Health has announced this week a “significant step” in the fight against Malaria as the East African nation expands its use of the world’s first-ever malaria vaccine.

The malaria vaccine — known as Mosquirix or RTS,s/AS01 — has seen a phased introduction in the country since a 2019 pilot program was launched. Since then, over a million doses of the vaccine have been administered to children across eight of Kenya’s counties, 400,000 of which have received at least one dose of the vaccine.

Starting March 7, 2023, Kenya’s Health Ministry has announced it is scaling up use of the ground-breaking vaccine, extending to an additional 25 sub-counties in lake-endemic regions. The vaccine will be expanded — free-of-charge — to an additional 133,000 infants in lake-endemic counties and will be available at all immunizing health facilities.

“The expansion of Kenya’s malaria vaccination program is a significant step in the fight against malaria,” Kenya’s Ministry of Health said. “It complements the existing methods and efforts in malaria prevention and control, and with more children benefitting from the vaccination the country can hope to see a further reduction in malaria-related deaths and illnesses.”

The expansion follows the recommendation from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Kenya National Immunization Technical Advisory Group (KENITAG) for wider use of the vaccine for children in sub-Saharan Africa and regions with moderate to high malaria transmission.

“The fight against malaria has always been a two-steps-forward, one-step-back struggle, and this vaccine is definitely a step forward but it is definitely no silver bullet,” Dr. Chris Plowe, adjunct professor of medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, tells ABC News.

“The main reason that after more than 100 years of research to develop a malaria vaccine we still have just one somewhat effective vaccine is that malaria is a big, nasty, complex parasite,” said Plowe. “It is much, much bigger and more complicated than the virus that causes COVID for example. It transforms itself again and again, first in mosquitoes, then in people. It mutates and changes and it is very good at hiding from the immune system and from vaccines.”

The malaria vaccine is currently in use in three African countries thus far — Kenya, Ghana and Malawi — and the vaccine has a total of four doses administered to the individual at 6 months, 7 months, 9 months and 24 months.

“The RTS,S malaria vaccine is the first vaccine that has demonstrated it can significantly reduce malaria,” says Kenya’s Cabinet Secretary for Health, CS Susan Wafula.

According to UNICEF, one child under the age of 5-years-old dies of malaria nearly every minute in Africa and the disease is a leading cause of illness and death among children, particularly within sub-Saharan Africa. In Kenya alone, there an estimated 3.5 million new clinical cases of malaria each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Growing up in western Kenya I and so many of my peers got very serious malaria growing up,” Stella Wokabi told ABC News. “If you’ve ever got malaria you know just how terrible this sickness is and so it’s such a relief to me that my baby girl can now reduce her risk of being seriously affected, like I was, thanks to this vaccine.”

The prevalence of malaria is highest among residents in Kenya’s lake-endemic counties such as Kisumu, Kakamega, Siaya and Homabay, due to the climate providing the perfect habitat and breeding ground for mosquitoes.

But, according to the 2020 Malaria Indicator Survey for Kenya, malaria prevalence in lake-endemic regions has dropped from 27%i n 2015 to 19% in 2020.

“In the coming years, our objective is to continue to expand malaria vaccination to other parts of the country, as more supplies of the vaccine become available,” said Dr. Lucy Mecca, head of the National Vaccines and Immunisation Program (NVIP).

Phased introduction in additional counties in Kenya is set to begin at the end of 2023 and the vaccination program aims to expand across Africa with at least 28 countries planning to introduce it starting this year.

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