(CNN)The World Health Organization announced Monday that it has the go-ahead to try the first malaria vaccine in the field in real-world settings next year. The organization made the announcement on the eve of World Malaria Day.
More than 429,000 people lost their lives to the mosquito-borne illness in 2015, and hundreds of millions get sick with a malaria infection every year. Some never fully recover.
There has been enormous progress in fighting the disease. From 2000 to 2015, there was a 62% reduction in malaria deaths, according to the WHO, and a 21% reduction in the number of cases. There have been fewer deaths in large part because of better mosquito control and disease awareness, as well as sustained effort to get the right medicine to the right populations, experts said.
But there are gaps in prevention coverage, particularly in regions such as sub-Saharan Africa, where about 43% of people at risk for the disease don’t have access to mosquito protection like bed nets or bug spray, according to the WHO.
Africa is the continent that sees the highest number of malaria cases. The new vaccine will be tested in Kenya, Ghana and Malawi starting in 2018.
Adding a vaccine to the disease-fighting mix could make a significant dent.
“This is great news, actually,” said Dr. Photini Sinnis, a deputy director at the Johns Hopkins Malaria Research Institute and professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. She trained with the GSK scientists who did much of the original research to develop the vaccine in its early days. “At the time, no one thought this would really work. Scientists are skeptical people.”
But it has shown enormous success. “This is a vaccine that has the capability to make a real difference,” Sinnis said. In phase 3, it was tried in 11,000 children in sub-Saharan Africa, and it decreased mortality by almost 50%: That’s thousands of lives saved. “You can’t argue with that success.”
Sinnis was meeting with other malaria researchers to talk about the latest scientific advances in vaccine development. Because of the biological complexity of the malaria parasite, developing a vaccine has been difficult.
The hope is that the vaccine will protect children from the deadliest form of malaria, known as Plasmodium falciparum. The pilot project will test whether the vaccine can work under real-world circumstances. It has to be delivered in four doses and given through an intramuscular injection.
Other preventative malaria treatment is available for infants, but uptake is “slow,” according to the WHO, and it is being implemented only in Sierra Leone. The hope is that if the vaccine works, it would become a part of the regular vaccine schedule for children in areas with high potential for malaria. In this case, it will be tested in children between the ages of 5 and 17.
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“The prospect of a malaria vaccine is great news. Information gathered in the pilot program will help us make decisions on the wider use of this vaccine,” said Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, WHO’s regional director for Africa, in a statement. “Combined with existing malaria interventions, such a vaccine would have the potential to save tens of thousands of lives in Africa.”