U.S. researchers say they’ve successfully tested a malaria vaccine on a small group of people, an important breakthrough in the effort to develop a vaccine that can be used on a wide scale. There’s currently no vaccination against malaria, a mosquito-borne disease that kills about one million people each year — mostly children — and sickens more than 200 million.
In a study published on Thursday in the Science journal, a team of researchers reported that several volunteers who received multiple doses of their new vaccine did not develop malaria infections after being exposed to mosquitoes carrying the disease. Six volunteers were given five doses — the most administered — and not a single one of them came down with malaria. Of the nine volunteers who received four doses, six were protected from infection. On the other hand, five out of the six unvaccinated participants became infected with malaria.
“The results are important because they demonstrate for the first time the concept that a malaria vaccine can provide a high level of protection,” Anthony Fauci, the director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, explained.
Public health experts are “cautiously optimistic” about the scientific breakthrough, pointing out that more research still needs to be done. The new vaccine will be tested further in clinical studies in Africa, where the vast majority of global malaria fatalities are concentrated.
The World Health Organization has set a goal to develop an effective malaria vaccine by the year 2025. Until now, researchers hadn’t been very close to that goal — the other leading malaria vaccine option that’s currently being researched has delivered disappointing results. But this might be a turning point. “Clearly the results that these authors obtained are really very impressive. For those individuals receiving five doses, they are recording 100 percent protection,” Nirbhay Kumar, the chair of the Department of Tropical Medicine at Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, pointed out to NBC News.
Over the past century, vaccines have allowed public health officials to make significant advances to eradicate infectious diseases. In the United States, 13 of what used to be the most common infectious diseases have practically been eradicated. In addition to a malaria vaccine, scientists are also inching toward a vaccine to prevent HIV from spreading.