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Malaria vaccine could be ready by 2015

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The world’s first malaria vaccine could be available within the next 18 months, marking a major advance in efforts to eradicate a disease that kills more than half a million people, many of them children, every year.

British pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) is preparing to submit a malaria vaccine for regulatory approval following a large-scale clinical trial which showed it resulted in a sharp reduction in disease risk among young children.

The vaccine, RTS,S, has been developed by GSK in partnership with the Path Malaria Vaccine Initiative and with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and was tested in a clinical trial involving 15,500 children in seven African countries – the largest such test ever held on the continent.

The trial found that, in the 18 months following vaccination, children aged between five and 17 months who had received RTS,S were 46 per cent less likely to contract malaria than those who had not been vaccinated.

The vaccine was also shown to have some efficacy for the very young, with the risk of clinical malaria 27 per cent less in infants aged between six and 12 weeks who had been given RTS,S compared with those who had not.

The trial results were presented to a medical meeting in Durban, South Africa, and in a statement GSK outlined the steps it plans to take to get the vaccine on the market.

“Based on these data, GSK now intends to submit, in 2014, a regulatory application to the European Medicines Agency (EMA),” the company said, adding that it hoped the World Health Organisation would recommend the use of RTS,S from as early as 2015 if it wins the approval of the EMA.

According to the WHO, there were about 219 million cases of malaria in 2010, including around 660,000 deaths.

The Organisation noted that progress was being made in controlling the disease, with mortality rates down by 25 per cent since 2000.

A lead investigator with the RTS,S trial, Halidou Tinto, told the BBC that “progress is being made with bed nets and other measures, but we need more tools to battle this terrible disease”.

In South Africa, there has been a massive 85 per cent drop in malaria mortality in the past 12 years following the widespread application of the controversial pesticide DDT.

The chemical is linked to birth defects, infertility and cancer, and has been banned in many countries.

But advocates for its use point out that the number of malaria infections in South Africa soared between 1996 and 2000 when DDT use was halted, and have steadily declined since it was reintroduced.

Adrian Rollins