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Despite Challenges, Experimental Malaria Vaccine Offers Hope

In a Washington Post opinion piece, columnist Michael Gerson reflects on the development of an experimental malaria vaccine which U.S. researchers last week reported proved highly effective in a small, early-stage human clinical trial. He details the research and writes, “If the vaccine works as promised, it would be an extraordinary scientific milestone: the first highly effective vaccine against a parasite.” Noting “[h]undreds of thousands of people die of malaria each year, mainly children under five,” Gerson states, “A vaccine that prevents infection — rather than treatments that modify the severity of the disease — is important to malaria eradication.” However, he notes “[t]here are serious obstacles in moving this type of vaccination to the necessary scale (beyond, say, to tourists and soldiers),” such as a complicated production process; the fact that the vaccine is delivered intravenously, which would require some level of training for health workers; and the need for a continuous cold chain delivery system.

“There is, of course, one additional obstacle on the issue of malaria,” Gerson writes. Noting that “[b]y one estimate, 58 percent of malaria deaths occur among the world’s bottom 20 percent in income — the most economically unequal suffering of any major public health crisis,” he continues, “In practice, this means the profile of the average malaria victim is a child in sub-Saharan Africa. Hardly the most promising market for expensive medical innovations.” But “if public health officials were content to whine about obstacles, mass treatment for AIDS never would have been undertaken,” he states, concluding, “So any adequate response will require a combination of public and private resources — from governments, international institutions, foundations and innovative privates companies — along with the crazy, humane determination to go for it” (8/12).