Explainer: What the new malaria and sickle cell treatments could mean for Africa

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Every year, over 260,000 children under the age of five die from malaria according to the World Health Organization (WHO). This makes this disease a major cause of childhood illness and death in sub-Saharan Africa. Globally, the African continent accounts for about 94% of the world’s malaria cases and deaths with Nigeria taking the lead with 23%.

Sickle cell disease (SCD) is another condition that many people in the African region suffer from. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), Africa has the largest number of Sickle cell cases in the world. The disease also accounts for 50-90% of the child mortality rates across the continent.

All of this is about to change with the groundbreaking malaria vaccine and the first new treatment for Sickle cell in 20 years.

What you need to know about the historic malaria vaccine

On the 6th of October, WHO recommended the use of the first malaria vaccine ever. Named RTS,S/AS01 (RTS,S), the vaccine will be used among children in sub-Saharan Africa and in other regions with moderate to high P. falciparum malaria transmission.

Sharing the groundbreaking news, Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa said, “We have long hoped for an effective malaria vaccine and now for the first time ever, we have such a vaccine recommended for widespread use. Today’s recommendation offers a glimmer of hope for the continent which shoulders the heaviest burden of the disease and we expect many more African children to be protected from malaria and grow into healthy adults.”

The malaria vaccine, which is a result of 30 years of research, is made specifically for countries in Sub-saharan Africa with moderately high cases. It has been tested in countries like Ghana, Kenya, and Malawi. So far, 2.3 million doses of the vaccine have been administered since 2019.

The RTS,S/AS01 malaria vaccine will be provided in a schedule of four doses in children from five months of age for the reduction of malaria disease and burden.

The first new treatment for Sickle cell in 20 years

A sickle cell drug called ‘Crizanlizumab’ has just been introduced to improve the conditions of living of people affected by sickle cell anaemia. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence has described the drug as an innovative health treatment for African countries that are predominantly affected and are not properly managed due to poor health conditions.

The drug, which will be injected into a vein, can be taken on its own or alongside standard treatment and regular blood transfusions.

After several trials, Crizanlizumab has been said to considerably reduce the crisis in sickle cell patients from an average of 3 times a year to 1.6.

What these medical innovations could mean for Africans

Living with sickle cell disease, which affects up to 3% of births throughout sub-Saharan Africa, can be quite challenging. Telling The Guardian Life how the disease has affected her career decision, Precious Gaza said, “The United Nations was a big dream but that did not work out quite well for me because every time I got a job with a reputable non-profit organization, I would be laid off because of my health. I was always falling sick. My health condition as a sickle cell warrior hindered me from keeping a job for more than three months.”

With this new revolutionary drug, a sickle cell patient wouldn’t have to go to the hospital as much. England’s National Health Service (NHS) says the drug will reduce the number of hospital visits by “two fifths”.

Amanda Pritchard, chief executive of NHS England, also says the drug will improve the lives of sickle cell patients.

“This is a historic moment for people with sickle cell disease who will be given their first new treatment in over two decades,” she said. “This revolutionary treatment will help to save lives, allow patients to have a better quality of life.”

As for malaria, the RTS,S vaccine targets the most deadly and most common parasite in Africa: Plasmodium falciparum. Trial reports show that the vaccine has what it takes to prevent about four in 10 cases of malaria and three in 10 severe cases.

“From a scientific perspective, this is a massive breakthrough. It is also a historical feat from a public health perspective…We’ve been looking for a malaria vaccine for over 100 years now, it will save lives and prevent disease in African children.” Dr. Pedro Alonso, the director of the WHO Global Malaria Programme said about the vaccine.

The vaccine could also reduce the number of children needing blood transfusions by a third.

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