The World Health Organisation (WHO) has predicted a spike in malaria-related deaths in Sub-Sahara Africa due to factors that are directly linked to the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to the modelling analysis by WHO, there could be a more than 20 percent rise in malaria incidence and a 50 percent increase in malaria-related deaths in sub-Saharan Africa due to reductions in routine malaria control measures such as bed net distribution and shortages of anti-malarial medicines caused by the pandemic.

This has prompted a quick response by the health body towards further verification of the efficacy of RTS,S, the first and, to date, the only vaccine that has been shown to reduce malaria in children, including life-threatening severe malaria, related hospital admissions and the need for blood transfusions.

The implementation of routine malaria prevention and control activities in the region has suffered major setbacks due to the COVID-19 pandemic.  However, WHO has said the vaccine has the potential to save millions of children’s lives.

The vaccine is currently being piloted in areas of moderate to high malaria transmission where malaria can account for up to 60 percent of childhood outpatient visits to health facilities.

Also, scientists at Britain’s University of Oxford have reportedly R21/Matrix-M, a malaria vaccine candidate that has showed up to 77 percent efficacy in a year-long trial involving 450 children in Burkina Faso.

RTS,S is the first malaria vaccine to demonstrate significant reductions in malaria deaths among young children. The ongoing pilot programme assessing the vaccine’s efficacy and its safety could put the global health community just an inch closer to controlling malaria in sub-Saharan Africa and around the globe.

10 countries had expressed interest in participating in the pilot, of which WHO chose Ghana, Kenya and Malawi.

Since 2019, 1.7 million doses of the vaccine have already been administered to over 650,000 children across the three pilot countries two years ahead of the pilot programme. The pilot seeks to reach 1million children with the full immunization course of four vaccine doses in the initial 3-year phase.

According to WHO, the protection provided by the RTS,S malaria vaccine, when added to currently recommended malaria control interventions, has the potential to save tens of thousands of lives per year.

“Ghana, Kenya and Malawi show that existing childhood vaccination platforms can effectively deliver the malaria vaccine to children, some of whom have not been able to access an insecticide treated bed net or other malaria prevention measures,” Dr Kate O’Brien, WHO Director of the Department of Immunization, Vaccines and Biologicals said.

Meanwhile, WHO hopes to use the insights generated by the pilot implementation to give a recommendation on broader use of the vaccine across sub-Saharan Africa, ahead of the proposed meeting of global advisory bodies for immunization and malaria are in October 2021 to review RTS,S data and consider whether to recommend wider use of the vaccine.

“In some ways malaria is the child health emergency of a lifetime – or many lifetimes – in Africa. We applaud the work of participating countries that has resulted in malaria vaccine pilots with strong vaccination coverage that will add to our understanding of the RTS,S vaccine’s potential to improve child health and strengthen malaria control – and, potentially, reverse trends,” Dr Akpaka Kalu, Team Leader for Tropical and Vector-borne Diseases in the WHO African Region said.

According to the latest World Malaria report, in 2019, there were an estimated 229 million malaria episodes and 400,000 deaths from the disease. Over 90 percent of the global cases of malaria deaths occur in Africa, with more than 265,000 occurring in young children.

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