Researchers in the U.S. are reporting that a newly-developed vaccine against malaria, called the PfSPZ Vaccine, is the first to show that it can provide full protection against the illness, and it will now start clinical trials in Africa.
Malaria is one of the top 10 most deadly diseases in the world. It's caused by a tiny parasite carried by certain types of mosquitoes, and is transmitted to humans when the mosquitoes bite us. When the parasite invades our body, it causes serious flu-like symptoms that can be fatal if not treated.
According to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), just in the year 2010 alone, there were 219 million cases of malaria worldwide, and 660,000 of those people infected died from the illness. The region of the world most affected by it is Africa, which accounted for over 90 per cent of those case. By comparison, the United States reports about 1,500 cases per year, on average, and Canada sees around 14 cases per year.
Up until now, there hasn't been a reliable vaccine against the illness due to the complicated nature of the parasite — there are four different kinds and they have an incredible ability to adapt, thus thwarting our attempts to develop protection against it. Vaccines are made using dead or 'inactive' versions organisms that make us sick, since those still activate our immune systems, but using dead malaria parasites in a vaccine doesn't work though, specifically because of this adaptability.
However, the researchers found a way to produce parasites that were alive, so they could still adapt, but were weakened to the point where they couldn't actually make us sick. This would allow our immune system to develop new antibodies as the weakened parasite adapted. Tests so far, including the first stage of human trials, have shown great promise. One challenge that needs to be overcome is that the vaccine needs to be given intravenously — so directly into the blood stream. This makes it slightly limited, as it doesn't take a simple jab in the arm to administer a dose to a patient.
"Despite this challenge, these trial results are a promising first step in generating high-level protection against malaria, and they allow for future studies to optimize the dose, schedule and delivery route of the candidate vaccine," said Dr. Robert A. Seder, the principle investigator of the trials done at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, according to a statement.
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The vaccine still has a ways to go before it's ready, though.
"This is not a vaccine that's ready for travelers to the developing world anytime soon," Dr. William Schaffner, the head of the preventive medicine department at Vanderbilt University's medical school, said in an interview with CNN. "However, from the point of view of science dealing with one of the big-three infectious causes of death around the world, it's a notable advance. And everybody will be holding their breath, watching to see whether this next trial works and how well it works."
The next stage is to start clinical trials, which will apparently be conducted at the Ifakara Health Institute, in Tanzania, and the researchers hope the vaccine will be licensed and ready for use within four years.
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