In early tests, the experimental vaccine was more than 50 percent effective in preventing the deadly disease in infants and toddlers in two countries in Africa, the scientists said. A larger and longer test is expected to begin early next year, the latest effort at slowing a disease that kills nearly 1 million people annually.A vaccine that is even partially effective could reduce the number of cases by hundreds of thousands every year. It would greatly increase the standard of living and improve the lives of tens of millions of Africans.
It is the first malaria vaccine to make it this far, and if further studies are successful, marketing approval could be sought as early as 2011. The vaccine was developed by the British-based GlaxoSmithKline PLC.
The results "add to our confidence that we are closer than ever before" to a malaria vaccine for African children, Dr. Christian Loucq, director of the PATH Malaria Vaccine Initiative, said during a teleconference from New Orleans.
The nonprofit group was started with a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to help develop malaria vaccines and make sure they're available where needed. The group teamed up with GlaxoSmithKline, and both paid for the vaccine studies.
The findings were presented Monday at a New Orleans meeting of the American Society for Tropical Medicine and Hygiene and will be in Thursday's New England Journal of Medicine. Some of the researchers work for the nonprofit group or the drugmaker.
Malaria is a tropical disease whose victims are mostly young children in sub-Saharan Africa. It is caused by a parasite and spread through a bite from an infected mosquito. The parasite travels quickly to the liver where it matures, enters the bloodstream and causes fever, chills, flu-like symptoms and anemia. The GlaxoSmithKline vaccine is designed to attack the parasite before it can infect the liver.
"Given the magnitude of malaria in Africa, the results represent a major milestone," said Dr. Ally Olotu, one of the researchers from Kilifi, Kenya.
The World Health Organization estimates that some 247 million people worldwide get malaria each year, but the most dangerous type is mainly in Africa. Government and private programs to control it have shown some progress in recent years with the distribution of bed nets, mosquito spraying and better malaria drugs. The United Nations announced a program in September to step up efforts against the disease with the goal of eliminating it by 2015.
It can't come soon enough.