Imperfect but overdue: Malaria vaccine trial brings hope to millions

Lawrence McGinty

Former Science and Medical Editor

Rahimatu lies in hospital with her distraught mother. Credit: ITV News

The room looks as if it hasn't changed much since the Presbyterian hospital was founded a hundred years ago by missionaries.

Its door bears the legend "treatment room" and inside I watch a three-year-old struggling in the throes of malaria.

Her doctor tells me Rahimatu is unconscious. She was wracked by fits before coming to hospital and they haven't stopped since her admission.

He holds her head up to show me she cant do it herself. She has cerebral malaria - the most dangerous kind - where the parasite has spread to her brain.

Her mother leans on a bench by the window, barely able to watch. Her daughter is critically ill.

The doctor, Herri Boateng, a pediatric specialist, takes me to his outpatients clinic. A throng of mothers with babies wait under a roof to shade them from the sun. Herri tells me about two thirds of them will have malaria.

He shows me the rapid diagnosis test they now use - its a bit like a pregnancy test and takes only 15 minutes. Richard Kwabena, a seven-year-old in a bright Chelsea FC shirt, has the test. His mother tells me she's travelled for two hours to reach the hospital.

That's important because there's a 24 hour window in malaria when treatment is most effective. Other children are not so lucky - their parents have no way of taking them to the hospital in Agogo and have to wait for a lift from farmers bringing their produce to market.

The trial took place in the town of Agogo, Ghana. Credit: Chris Gibson/ITV News

Herri tells me he wishes they saw patients earlier before it can develop into cerebral malaria.

He also tells me a vaccine would be "a point in the right direction".

His colleague Professor Tsiri Agbenyega tells me they have reached a "eureka moment" in the development of just such a vaccine - the first in the world against a parasite.

The hospital in Agogo is one of 11 centres in seven sub-Saharan countries where scientists are carrying out trials of the most advanced malaria vaccine. The full results will be available soon, but even at the half-way point, the results are encouraging.

The vaccine is left effective in babies, the tests so far show. Credit: Chris Gibson/ITV News

They show that the vaccine nearly halves the number of episodes of malaria in children aged between 17 months and five years.

For every 1,000 children they vaccinate, 941 cases of clinical malaria were prevented over 18 months of follow-up (remember children can have more than one bout).

I met two families who believe they have reason to be thankful to the trials.

Sitting in a court yard outside her home Selina Kweiwaa tells me her son Godfred was protected against a bout of malaria two months ago by the vaccine.

Godfred, who received the vaccine, with his mother in Agogo. Credit: ITV News

Godfred shakes my hand not realising how lucky he has been.

And a beaming mother of seven Beatrice Frimpongmaa tells me her son Isaac, who was also in the trial, was protected by two things - God and the vaccine trial.

Beatrice, a 30-year-old mother of seven, says her son Issac's life was saved by the Malaria vaccine. Credit: Chris Gibson/ITV News

The trial shows the vaccine is not perfect - in young babies the reduction in the number of cases is only around 25 per cent. But that's still significant - not least because most of the children in the trial already had some protection from using bed nets. In conjunction with those measures, a vaccine could have a sizeable impact.

When I ask Prof Tsiri Agbenyega if he can see a day when malaria could be eradicated he breaks into a characteristic, cheerful smile and tells me "Why not".

And the vaccine could be deployed very soon.

The full results of the trial are due and if they fulfill the early promise, the European Medicine Agency could approve the vaccine this year.

If that's followed by approval from the World Health Organisation, they could start vaccinating African children next year.