Saturday, October 29, 2011

Weekend Post - A malaria vaccine?

Is it possible that we might one day live in a world without malaria? Nobody knows but we’re now a step closer.

Last week it was announced that following an 18-month clinical trial involving 15,000 African children an experimental vaccine appears to reduce the risk of contracting malaria by half. That’s not a cure but it’s an excellent start.

The potential benefit is enormous. Every year perhaps a million people around the world die from malaria, most of them African children. Anything we can do to reduce that death toll must be worth the effort. Even if we only halve the number of victims that’s half a million survivors.

This vaccine works by stopping the spread and multiplication of the malaria parasite after the victim has been bitten, by stimulating the body’s immune response and preventing it from getting a foothold in the liver.

The vaccine was based on a quarter of a century’s research by a GlaxoSmithKline team led by a research scientist called Joe Cohen. This is the stuff that Nobel Prizes are made of. A career’s research devoted to something that is so overwhelmingly good, that has such potential benefit for humanity and that can possibly save millions of lives.

I can’t help but wonder how certain people are going to react when they learn that this research was undertaken by a drug company. Not a high-brow academic in a university but an employee of GlaxoSmithKline, a company that some people will have you believe is the corporate Anti-Christ. I’m no defender of the pharmaceutical industry, they’ve certainly got a stained record but that doesn’t mean everything they do is wrong. This is a great example of how an absolute and uncomplicated good thing can come from an industry we’re free to criticise and condemn. Every so often though we have to give them some serious gratitude.

It’s happened before of course. One of the least known but most important statements ever made in human history was when the World Health Organisation declared in 1980 that “the world and its peoples have won freedom from smallpox”. A massive, worldwide campaign of vaccination and infection control over several decades eventually removed smallpox from the face of the planet. This disease killed hundreds of millions of people and it’s eradication is perhaps the greatest, practical contributions to humanity that science has ever offered. If you ever encounter one of those deluded scaremongers who say that vaccination is dangerous you need only say the word “Smallpox” and you’ve won.

One of the most disappointing things I’ve seen over the last few decades is the anti-vaccination movement. I have no hesitation in calling them either deluded or liars and some of them are both. Children have DIED because of the drops in vaccination rates around the world. Not just in the Western World where measles reappeared but here in Botswana where certain groups took what is politely referred to as a “faith position” against vaccinations. It’s not just their children we should feel sorry for it’s the rest of the community as well. One of the key objectives in fighting communicable disease is “herd” or “community immunity”. A disease like measles can’t spread as easily if most of the population are immune to it. “Chains of infection” can’t form if there are only very few people with no immunity. The more people there are who haven’t developed, or been given, immunity by vaccination the more likely the few who haven’t are to get the disease.

Malaria is different though, it’s not passed from human to human and eradicating malaria will require a different approach. However, a vaccination to give people immunity would be such an amazing step forward. The vaccine isn’t going to be with us very soon either. Scientists have earned the hard way that these things can’t be rushed. However the researchers hope that it’ll hopefully be available by 2015. Then we can really celebrate.


For a summary of the research see the Reuters story here. There's a comprehensive description of malaria from the Center for Disease Control here.

For some background on smallpox and why it's eradication is a reason for celebration see the Wikipedia page and the various links it offers. Anti-vaccination campaigners should be forced to look at the pictures of smallpox victims and imagine they show their children. For a scathing description of the loathsome anti-vaccination movement see the Skeptics Dictionary article here.

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