The first vaccine to protect against malaria has been endorsed by the World Health Organization (WHO) and could prevent the deaths of tens of thousands of children a year.
Malaria kills about half a million people worldwide annually. Nearly all of those deaths occur in sub-Saharan Africa and include 260,000 children under the age of 5, The New York Times reported.
The Mosquirix vaccine is given in three doses between the ages of 5 months and 17 months, with a fourth dose about 18 months later.
In clinical trials, the GlaxoSmithKline vaccine was about 50% effective against severe malaria in the first year, but that fell to close to zero by the fourth year, the Times reported.
After the clinical trials, the vaccine was incorporated into routine immunization programs in Kenya, Malawi and Ghana. So far, more than 2.3 million doses have been given to more than 800,000 children in those countries.
That boosted the percentage of children protected against malaria in some way to more than 90%, from less than 70%, Dr. Mary Hamel, head of the WHO's malaria vaccine implementation program, told the Times.
Last year, a modeling study estimated that use of the vaccine in countries with the highest incidence of malaria could prevent 5.4 million cases and 23,000 deaths in children younger than 5 each year, according to the Times.
Another recent trial assessed how well a combination of the vaccine and preventive drugs protected children during high malaria transmission seasons. This dual approach was found to be much more effective at preventing severe disease, hospitalization and death than either method alone, the Times reported.
The vaccine -- the first for any parasitic disease -- triggers the immune system to target Plasmodium falciparum, the deadliest of five malaria pathogens and the most common one in Africa.
"Progress against malaria has really stalled over the last five or six years, particularly in some of the hardest-hit countries in the world," Ashley Birkett, who leads malaria programs at PATH, a nonprofit focused on global health, told the Times.
With the new vaccine, "there's potential for very, very significant impact there," Birkett added.
Dr. Nanthalile Mugala is PATH's chief of the Africa Region. "It is gratifying to know that a malaria vaccine developed specifically for African children could soon be more widely available," Mugala said in a statement from the nonprofit.
"This is especially true now when progress in combating malaria has stalled in parts of the Africa region and children remain at increased risk of dying from the disease. As caregivers saw the benefits of the malaria vaccine for their children, we saw their trust in the vaccine, and the health systems, grow," Mugala added. "Parents will do everything in their power to protect their children against this terrible disease that still kills one child every two minutes."
Later this year, the board of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance is expected to consider financing a broader rollout of the vaccine across Africa.
The WHO's endorsement of the vaccine came after experts met to review data and made a formal recommendation to WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
If Gavi also approves the vaccine, it will buy the vaccine for countries that request it. That process is likely to take at least a year, the Times reported.
Visit the WHO for more on malaria.
SOURCE: The New York Times