ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Today global health officials are making history. They're rolling out the first vaccine aimed at stopping malaria. Malaria infects more than 200 million people a year, and it's one of the biggest killers of children worldwide. In Africa, more than a quarter-million kids die each year from the disease. The vaccine has taken 30 years to develop. And as NPR's Michaeleen Doucleff reports, toddlers in Malawi will be the first to get it.
MICHAELEEN DOUCLEFF, BYLINE: Back in the mid-1980s, scientists at Walter Reed Army Institute here in the U.S. started developing an experimental malaria vaccine. The first versions failed, so they teamed up with the company now known as GlaxoSmithKline and tried again. Then they started seeing promising results in the petri dish. Thirty years later, that vaccine is finally ready to be given to kids in the countries that need it the most - those in sub-Saharan Africa.
DEBORAH ATHERLY: We're extremely excited that we're at the point of being able to do pilot introductions in the areas where malaria is actually causing the death and disease.
DOUCLEFF: That's Deborah Atherly, who leads vaccine deployment at PATH, a nonprofit which has helped develop the vaccine. Every two minutes, a child or baby in sub-Saharan Africa dies of malaria. In some places, a baby can have six bouts of it in just one year. Atherly points out that this vaccine is one of the few to be designed and launched specifically for children across Africa.
ATHERLY: I think that's also a really, really important milestone in sort of vaccine development and introduction.
DOUCLEFF: Most vaccines are targeted for people in rich countries because they are expensive to make. But this vaccine has been heavily subsidized by GSK, foundations and governments. Starting today, toddlers in Malawi will receive the vaccine, then kids in Kenya and Ghana. The initial goal is to immunize about 360,000 children over the next few years. But the vaccine isn't a silver bullet for malaria. For starters, kids need four doses of the vaccine for it to be effective. For families in rural areas, four trips to a clinic could be hard. The second problem is the vaccine isn't super effective.
WILLIAM MOSS: The vaccine efficacy is much lower than many of our other childhood vaccines.
DOUCLEFF: That's William Moss. He directs the International Vaccine Access Center and is an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University. He says the vaccine protects kids only about 30 percent of the time. By comparison, many childhood vaccines offer 80 or 90 percent protection. The buzz around the vaccine is warranted. So many children get malaria in Africa that even a weak vaccine can have a big impact on a community's health.
MOSS: There are estimates that one life would be saved for every 200 children who are vaccinated, so that's where the impact is.
DOUCLEFF: And that could save the lives of tens of thousands of kids every year.
Michaeleen Doucleff, NPR News.
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