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World Health Organization approves first-ever malaria vaccine

Mosquito-borne illness kills hundreds of thousands of people each year. 

Mosquito

Malaria is an infectious disease that kills about 400,000 people around the world every year. Half of those affected are children in Africa. Last week, the World Health Organization approved the vaccine Mosquirix, the first vaccine for the disease.

We talked to VCU Health infectious disease expert Dr. Michael Stevens about what this means for global health.   

Michael Stevens, M.D.What is malaria? Who is affected by it most?

Malaria is a parasite transmitted by mosquitos in certain parts of the world.  It is a particularly nasty parasite that can cause severe illness and death, especially in children less than 5 years of age. Malaria cases seen in the United States are in travelers to and from parts of the world where malaria exists. 

Globally in 2019 there were 229,000,000 cases of malaria, with approximately 409,000 deaths — these were mostly children in Africa. In contrast, there are about 2,000 cases of malaria in the United States each year.

How is it spread? Why is it deadly? 

Malaria is spread by mosquito bites. The malaria parasite can rapidly infect a person's red blood cells, which are the cells that carry oxygen around the body. The red blood cells break apart and can “gum up” blood flow to vital organs. This limits a person's ability to get oxygen to their cells and tissues.

How is malaria currently treated?

Malaria can be treated by several anti-parasitic drugs, but different species of malaria must be treated differently. Additionally, treatment depends on how sick somebody is.

What about mosquito nets?

Mosquito nets are an important preventive strategy, but they don’t eliminate all risk. Mosquito nets work best when they are part of a multi-part strategy to reduce mosquito bites — and therefore malaria exposure.

Why is the vaccine so important?

Getting ahold of the medications that treat malaria is a challenge for people in many malaria-endemic regions. For those areas, preventing malaria is easier than treating it. 

When combined with other efforts to limit malaria, such as mosquito nets, the vaccine has the potential to save tens of thousands of lives per year. This is especially important in parts of the world, such as sub-Saharan Africa, where children are at high risk for a certain form of malaria.

Should people in the U.S. get the vaccine before they travel to Africa? 

This is not a vaccine U.S. travelers are likely to get before traveling to malaria-endemic areas. For these travelers, who spend limited time in those areas, oral pills that protect against malaria are a better strategy.  People traveling to an area with malaria should speak with their physician or a travel medicine clinic before travel. Travelers can find out more through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

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