The world’s first routine vaccine programme against malaria has started in Cameroon, in a move projected to save thousands of children’s lives across Africa.
The symbolic first jab was given to a baby girl named Daniella at a health facility near Yaoundé on Monday.
Every year 600,000 people die of malaria in Africa, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
Children under five make up at least 80% of those deaths.
Cameroon is offering the RTS,S vaccine free of charge to all infants up to the age of six months old.
Patients require a total of four doses.
The jab is known to be effective in at least 36% of cases, according to US researchers, meaning it could save over one in three lives.
While the rollout is undoubtedly a relief and a life-saver, its relatively low efficacy rate means that it is not a “silver bullet”, argues Willis Akhwale at End Malaria Council Kenya.
But for medics it is an important “additional tool” in the fight against malaria, says Cameroonian doctor Shalom Ndoula who helped to lead the rollout in his country.
“We have a capacity to considerably reduce the number of cases and deaths from malaria and accelerate the elimination of the disease,” he told the BBC.
Development of the RTS,S vaccine has taken 30 years of research by the British drug-maker GSK.
The World Health Organization, which approved the vaccine, hailed the launch in Cameroon as a historic moment in the global fight against the mosquito-borne disease.
It comes after successful pilot campaigns in Kenya, Ghana and Malawi.
Twenty other countries aim to roll out the programme this year, according to the global vaccine alliance, Gavi. Among them are Burkina Faso, Liberia, Niger and Sierra Leone.
The WHO says Cameroon records about six million malaria cases every year, with 4,000 deaths in health facilities – most of them children below five.
Six-month-old children in 42 districts with the greatest rates of morbidity and mortality will receive four doses until the age of two.
‘Safe, effective and free’
Fears and doubts among some Cameroonians about the safety and efficacy of the doses have raised concerns about vaccine hesitancy.
However, “it’s a vaccine that’s safe, effective and free,” insists Daniele Ekoto, a vaccination official in Cameron who tried to reassure several mothers after administering doses to their children.
But for others the benefits are obvious.
“I decided to vaccinate my child to avoid malaria. It’s a bad thing and when it affects a child, they can easily die,” one mother told the BBC at the same vaccination centre in Soa, near Yaoundé, where Monday’s launch happened.
In 2021, Africa accounted for 95% of malaria cases globally and about 96% of related deaths.
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