World's first malaria vaccine to be introduced in three countries in 2018

AP

In a major step forward in the global fight against malaria, the World Health Organization will begin pilot programs in three countries for the world's first malaria vaccine, the BBC reported.

The WHO will begin introducing the vaccine through pilot programs 2018 in Ghana, Kenya and Malawi — three countries that were chosen in part because they have established anti-malaria programs as well as high rates of the disease, according to the BBC.

What is malaria?

Malaria is a disease caused by parasites transmitted through infected mosquitoes, and it's currently found in 91 countries and areas around the world, according to the WHO. Initial symptoms, which include a fever, headache and chills, usually show up between 10 to 15 days after the infective bite. If the disease isn't treated within the the first 24 hours, according to the WHO, it can become severe and often fatal.

Mosquitoes spread malaria.  Ye Aung Thuy/Getty Images

Africa bears a disproportionate brunt of deadly malaria cases. In 2015, 90% of malaria cases and 92% of malaria deaths occurred on the continent. 

Current anti-malaria programs use a number of techniques to curb the spread of the disease, including spraying with insecticides indoors, insecticide-treated mosquito nets and antimalarial drugs. But mosquitos have developed resistances to insecticides and antimalarial drugs in recent years, making the development of a vaccine to prevent malaria all the more crucial.

Why we need a vaccine

In a press release on Monday, the WHO said that despite the relative success of anti-malaria programs, the disease still killed some 429,000 people in 2015 — most of them young children in Africa.

Experts say the the pilot program for the vaccine, which is administered through injection and is designed to protect young children from the most deadly form of malaria, according to the WHO, could have a massive impact.

"The prospect of a malaria vaccine is great news. Information gathered in the pilot will help us make decisions on the wider use of this vaccine," Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, WHO regional director for Africa, said in a statement. "Combined with existing malaria interventions, such a vaccine would have the potential to save tens of thousands of lives in Africa."

Children with severe malaria receive blood transfusions in Kenya, 2009  Karel Prinsloo/AP

The vaccine, which has been in the works for years, is the first malaria vaccine to successfully pass a Phase III clinical trial, according to the WHO. It is administered in four doses: one dose per month for three consecutive months, followed by a fourth dose 18 months later.

Among children between the ages of 5 months and 17 months, the vaccine prevented malaria in nearly 40% of cases where all four doses were administered, the BBC reported. The four-dose regimen also reduced the number of children who needed hospital treatment for the disease.

The pilot program will involve about 750,000 children in the three selected countries, the BBC reported, around half of whom will receive the vaccine, in order to see if its real-world effectiveness holds up to trials.