April 25, 2014 | The Editors

Malaria: is vaccine against a parasite possible?

A vaccine that protects people from a human parasite has never been developed before. PATH is working with partners to bring the first one to fruition.
Five smiling mothers hold their young children on their laps while health workers look on.
These children in Tanzania are among more than 15,000 African children participating in a phase 3 trial of RTS,S, the most clinically advanced malaria vaccine candidate. Photo: PATH/David Poland.

Each year, more than 2 million children die from just four illnesses: malaria, pneumonia, diarrhea caused by rotavirus, and Japanese encephalitis. To mark World Immunization Week, we’re profiling vaccine projects in our extensive portfolio that aim to protect children from these illnesses. Today, World Malaria Day, we look at progress toward a vaccine that promises to be the first to provide humans with protection from a parasite.

Graphic with text reading, "World Immunization Week 2014. Four vaccines, millions saved: malaria, pneumonia, rotavirus, Japanese encephalitis."
Illustration: PATH/Shawn Kavon.

The challenge

How do you stop a complex and adaptable killer that has survived for millennia?

Malaria is responsible for the deaths of more than 600,000 people each year, mostly children in sub-Saharan Africa. And every year, it sickens some 200 million others. While drugs and insecticides save millions of lives, the mosquito-borne malaria parasite is developing resistance to both. A safe, effective, and affordable malaria vaccine could close the gap in interventions.

The vaccine

A vaccine that protects people from a human parasite has never been developed before, and until recently, many people thought it was impossible. But PATH, through our Malaria Vaccine Initiative, is working with many partners to accomplish an important goal of the malaria community: develop a first-generation vaccine that cuts the number of episodes of malaria in young children by about half, with protection lasting for more than one year.

Final results of the largest malaria vaccine trial ever undertaken—for the vaccine candidate RTS,S—should be available by early 2015, thanks in large part to the families in seven African countries who took part in the trial.

The future

RTS,S is the most clinically advanced malaria vaccine candidate in the world, but other efforts are already underway to develop a second generation of malaria vaccines. Dozens of malaria vaccine projects are at various stages of development around the world. Because the malaria parasite is so complex, scientists are pursuing a diversity of vaccine development approaches.

PATH’s malaria vaccine portfolio is one of the largest. We target multiple stages of the parasite’s life-cycle. Some projects build on RTS,S to better protect against infection. Others attempt to interrupt transmission of the parasite—in other words, to stop it before it even enters the human body.

 The series:

10 reasons vaccines are the best protector of human life

Malaria: is a vaccine against a parasite possible?

Pneumonia: smart vaccines to fight the number one child killer

Rotavirus: preventing killer diarrhea

Japanese encephalitis vaccine: the affordable answer to Asia’s “brain fever”

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