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Malaria Vaccine Gives Debate Shot in the Arm

• October 19, 2011 • 5:17 PM

Once derided as the wrong path forward in fighting this mosquito-borne killer, a new malaria vaccine offers decent results and renewed hope.

The fight against malaria has always featured a side controversy over whether the search for a vaccine — which always seemed a little pie-in-the-sky — sucked out some of the oxygen (read money) for more practical efforts like pesticide-infused bed netting. (Writer Karen Schmidt described such things as “Everyday Miracles” for us two years ago.)

Given that most diseases that primarily hurt those in the developing world are pretty much ignored in the industrialized world, the dispute by well-meaning people was always a trifle unusual. Then the search for the malaria vaccine was rejuvenated by recent advances in tracking down the parasite in the liver, as our Matt Palmquist noted in 2008. (“A New Hope for Human Malaria Vaccine”)

New results from tests of an experimental malaria vaccine announced on October 18 suggest the search for a vaccine was not so Pollyannish after all; the vaccine reportedly cuts the risk of infection in half.

The shot is likely to become the first successful vaccine for malaria, a disease that kills more than 750,000 people each year, most of them children.

Further testing is needed, and the soonest the malaria vaccine could reach the market would be 2015. The exact cost of the shot is unclear, but the developer, GlaxoSmithKline, has stated that it only plans to charge for the cost of manufacturing plus a 5 percent markup to invest in further research.

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Even if the vaccine is unable to eradicate the disease entirely, a cost-effective distribution of the malaria vaccine in sub-Saharan Africa, combined with other prevention methods, could save hundreds of thousands of lives and make amazing improvements in productivity for the tens of millions made sick by repeated bouts.

And in a nod to the other disputants in the controversy, other approaches — in 2010 we posed the idea of fighting malaria through an attack on the mating habits of the disease-carrying mosquitoes — and a continued reliance on everyday miracles like bed nets and better primary health care will hopefully send malaria the way of smallpox and polio.

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Dan Watson
Dan Watson is a fellow at Miller-McCune. An editor originally from York, Pa., he has a bachelor’s in English from Emory University, and previously served as the editorial intern for Grist.

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