First malaria vaccine hits 1 million dose milestone : Goats and Soda The vaccine couldn't have come at a more critical time, with a surge in cases and deaths from malaria during the pandemic. But its efficacy — and its schedule — are far from ideal.

First malaria vaccine hits 1 million dose milestone — although it has its shortcomings

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

More than 1 million African children have now received doses of the world's first vaccine against malaria. Now, the timing is critical. During the pandemic, the mosquito-borne disease saw a surge in cases and deaths. But there are concerns about just how effective the vaccine will be. Here's NPR's Ari Daniel.

ARI DANIEL, BYLINE: Dr. Kwaku Poku Asante of Ghana was a few minutes late to our interview because he'd just gotten a phone call.

KWAKU POKU ASANTE: I've just been called that my son, who's in high school, has a fever. I'm not sure whether it's malaria, but I'm troubled.

DANIEL: Asante's son is 14, so not in the high-risk group of 5 and under. Still, parents in much of Africa are terrified by a fever, which may signal malaria. The disease defines much of Asante's professional life, too, as director of the Kintampo Health Research Centre.

ASANTE: I've witnessed many, many children at the hospital, sometimes come in convulsing. Sometimes they come in with severe anemia.

DANIEL: And of course, sometimes these children die. In 2020, the World Health Organization counted almost a quarter billion cases of malaria in kids and adults, resulting in 627,000 deaths. For years, the best protective measures have been preventative - insecticide-treated bed nets, anti-malarial pills, reducing mosquito habitat. Dr. Rose Jalang'o is with Kenya's Ministry of Health and says despite these interventions, progress against the disease had plateaued.

ROSE JALANG'O: At that point, we needed new tools to further reduce the burden of malaria disease.

DANIEL: Just such a new tool arrived last fall when the WHO authorized a malaria vaccine, the first-ever against a parasitic disease to be rolled out in Ghana, Malawi and Kenya. Now, over a million kids have received doses.

JALANG'O: Wow. This is a total game-changer. Having a malaria vaccine has the potential of reducing the deaths associated with malaria.

DANIEL: Jalang'o coordinates Kenya's malaria vaccination program.

JALANG'O: The community members are reporting their children - they are having less frequent attacks of malaria.

DANIEL: The data are somewhat less heartening. The vaccine only reduces severe malaria by 30%, and there's a wide margin of error on that figure. It requires three or four doses by age 2, a schedule that can be challenging for families. And even though children gain a measure of protection at a vulnerable age, efficacy can wane.

DYANN WIRTH: You know, it's not perfect. Would I like a vaccine that's 100% effective and easily given in one dose? Absolutely. But that's not the reality.

DANIEL: Dyann Wirth is a geneticist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and chairs an independent malaria advisory group at the WHO.

WIRTH: The vaccine shows some protection. I think not using it would not be justifiable. It is important that it be available to the populations that can benefit.

DANIEL: Health professionals on the ground say this vaccine isn't intended to replace other measures like bed nets. It's one more layer of protection. Kwaku Poku Asante again.

ASANTE: It's taken us about 30 to 40 years to get here.

DANIEL: And now, other vaccines and preventative treatments are in the works.

ASANTE: And therefore, at this point, if there is a vaccine, we can only improve on it over time.

DANIEL: Ari Daniel, NPR News.

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