Last week GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), one of the world’s leading research-based pharmaceutical and healthcare companies and the PATH Malaria Vaccine Intiative (MVI), announced that the world may be closer to a malaria vaccine than once thought.  Working together, MVI and GSK announced results from a large scale trail in Africa testing the RTS,S vaccine which demonstrated a nearly 50% decrease in the number of cases among participants. This is an incredibly exciting and important announcement for the millions of people, including many children that suffer from this debilitating and deadly disease.

In the announcement, Halidou Tinto, Principal Investigator from the Nanoro, Burkina Faso trial site and chair of the Clinical Trials Partnership Committee, said “It appears that the RTS,S candidate vaccine has the potential to have a significant public health impact…preventing substantial numbers of malaria cases in a community would mean fewer hospital beds filled with sick children. Families would lose less time and money caring for these children and have more time for work or other activities. And of course the children themselves would reap the benefits of better health.”

Steve Davis, President and CEO of PATH writes, “Together with our partners, we are proud of this work to advance the development of another potential tool in controlling, and eventually, eliminating malaria.”

Despite the hard work of many dedicated global organizations, malaria remains one of the greatest threats to life in the developing world.  Particularly as we look to Sub-Saharan Africa, we find some astounding statistics.  Each year, over half a million people die from malaria and more than 216 million contract the disease – mostly children younger than five. The disease not only causes loss of life, but loss of income, costing Africa an estimated $12 billion in lost productivity.

Photo provided by PATH MVI

Photo provided by David Poland/PATH Malaria Vaccine Initiative

After 12 months of follow up, as reported last year, RTS,S was seen to prevent more than 50% of cases of malaria in 5 to 17 month-olds.  After 18 months, that number dropped to just below 50%.  Though this vaccine candidate is moderately productive and fails to reach the  levels some experts advocate, it is hard to deny the impact it could have and we are eager to learn how a booster dose affects efficacy when the final set of data is made public in 2014.  Even though a number of good preventative measures like bed nets and insecticide treatments have significant contributed to reducing malaria, none have the potential on their own to have the kind of impact a vaccine could have in achieving eradication.  Implementing these measures together with a malaria vaccine holds promise for greatly reducing the burden of the disease at new and greater levels.

A vaccine would also help address poverty-related obstacles that are difficult for treatment approaches to overcome. Many suffering from the illness simply don’t have the time or ability to visit the hospital or get medications.  In the places where malaria is most pervasive, clinics and hospitals are few and far between, making it all the more difficult to treat this disease. Combined with improper use and uneven distribution of existing treatment options, the potential implications that an effective vaccine could bring to the table are so great that even modest advancements in the development of a vaccine.

According to the release, GSK intends to take significant steps forward, submitting the vaccine to EU regulators next year.  If favorably considered, they will seek a policy recommendation from the WHO in 2015, which would pave the pay for introduction to African countries.

Let’s all hope they succeed.

This post was written by Olivia Noble, Associate at Global Health Council.