When will researchers finally develop an effective malaria vaccine? | Tomorrow Today - The Science Magazine | DW | 28.10.2013
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Tomorrow Today

When will researchers finally develop an effective malaria vaccine?

This week's guest is Dr. Christian G. Meyer, an infectious disease expert from the Bernhard Nocht Institute for Tropical Medicine in Hamburg.

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The Malaria vaccine that's being used on children is only effective in about half of them who receive it. Why is that?

Indeed it's less than half. In very young children and infants it's 27% in preventing clinical malaria cases. We don't know anything about mortality rates using this vaccine. It hasn't been developed very far. On the other hand, it's the best that we have at the moment. I'm very sure that the company that has developed the vaccine will try to develop it further. We'll have to see what comes out of that. But the vaccine in fact with an effectivity of let's say around 30% is not good enough.

So we don't really have any concrete answer do we as to why it's not necessarily working, but let's look at why it's taken this long to come up with a vaccine...

Because the infectious agent -- plasmodium -- which causes malaria is a very complex organism with many proteins. And the more complex an infectious agent is, the more difficult it is to develop a vaccine or a substance which later on will provide immunity. In viral diseases it certainly isn't a simple task -- we all know that we don't have a vaccine against the HIV virus -- but viruses are not as complex as the malaria infectious agent is.

Malaria with climate change is moving north. Do you think that this has something to do with the sudden surge of interest in developing a vaccine all of a sudden?

No. Malaria is one of the Big Three diseases: malaria, tuberculosis and HIV. And given the number of children who are dying of malaria every year in Africa -- which is by the way around 600, 700 or 800 thousand -- nobody is very sure -- there is an urgent need to develop a vaccine against malaria. It's one of the big killers.

What else are they doing to fight this disease right now?

There are other control measures, like impregnated mosquito nets, which means that the mosquitos are impregnated with the substance, killing the mosquitos. Then there's correct treatment of malaria. Getting good patient compliance. Correct treatment cycles and so on. There are quite a lot of measures which can control, or which can help to control malaria. In fact, the number of cases has decreased in the last years. 10 years ago we had 500 or 600 thousand clinical cases per year. And this has decreased.

But yet, the medicine is becoming less effective. What about the medicines that we're using to treat this at the moment?

At the moment we can treat malaria. But as you mentioned resistance is developing. And so there's also an urgent need to develop new treatment measures.