How big a difference will the world's first malaria vaccine make?

By 2015, GlaxoSmithKline hopes to market the world's first malaria vaccine. But a lot more needs to be done to tackle a disease that kills 660,000 people a year.

The UK company GlaxoSmithKline is hoping that by 2015 it will be able to introduce the world’s first malaria vaccine. In clinical trials, the vaccine halved the number of cases of malaria in babies aged five to seven months, and reduced by a quarter the number of cases in babies aged six to twelve weeks. This means it isn’t a miracle cure for the mosquito-borne disease that WHO estimates kills 660,000 people a year, but it could still make a huge difference – malaria is the fifth biggest killer of under-fives globally.

There are still obstacles to overcome before the vaccine can be introduced. It will need to be approved by health regulators, international donors will have to agree to fund the vaccine, and WHO will have to co-ordinate a plan for rolling-out vaccination programmes.

In 2004 a group of malaria experts wrote a damning report in the medical journal, Lancet, accusing WHO of contributing to unnecessary malaria deaths because of its slowness to replace failing malaria drugs with newer more effective treatments. The hope is that WHO has taken these criticisms on board and has become nimbler and more responsive to change. But while researching an article on drug-resistant malaria, a number of experts told me they were frustrated with WHO’s slow and unwieldy bureaucracy. “WHO, like any other UN organisation, has enormous problems. It’s primarily a political organisation, not a technical organisation, and it’s basically shown weak leadership in recent years, in many areas,” Dr Nick White, chairman of the Mahidol Oxford Tropical Medicine Research Unit in Bangkok, told me.

There is also hope that this latest discovery will pave the way for the development of more effective malaria vaccinations, but researchers often find that funding is hard to come by. Selling anti-malarials to the poor isn’t especially lucrative for drug companies – and in fact, globally, more money is spent on treating male baldness than malaria.

There’s a new urgency to this work to develop a vaccine too, because in parts of South East Asia, malaria is becoming resistance to artemisinin, the most effective anti-malarial drug to date. Experts at the World Malaria Conference 2012 predicted that if artemisinin resistance spreads to Africa, where the incidence of malaria is much higher, global malaria deaths will increase by 25%. NGOs and governments in South East Asia are doing their best to contain drug resistance, by increasing the use of mosquito nets and improving access to high-quality malaria drugs. The recent discovery of drug-resistant malaria on the Thai-Burma border, however, suggests that drug-resistant malaria is spreading despite containment efforts.

If drug-resistant malaria continues to spread in this way, developing an effective vaccine for malaria might be our best bet. GlaxoSmithKline’s discovery is a big step forward, but without sufficient political will and funding, we could still lose the battle against malaria.

A laboratory technician prepares blood samples to test for malaria. Photo:Getty.

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

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I can’t follow Marie Kondo's advice – even an empty Wotsits packet “sparks joy” in me

I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

I have been brooding lately on the Japanese tidying freak Marie Kondo. (I forgot her name so I typed “Japanese tidying freak” into Google, and it was a great help.) The “Japanese” bit is excusable in this context, and explains a bit, as I gather Japan is more on the case with the whole “being tidy” thing than Britain, but still.

Apart from telling us that we need to take an enormous amount of care, to the point where we perform origami when we fold our underpants, which is pretty much where she lost me, she advises us to throw away anything that does not, when you hold it, “spark joy”. Perhaps I have too much joy in my life. I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

After a while I gave up on this because I was getting a bit too happy with all the memories, so then I thought to myself, about her: “This is someone who isn’t getting laid enough,” and then I decided that was a crude and ungallant thought, and besides, who am I to wag the finger? At least if she invites someone to her bedroom no one is going to run screaming from it, as they would if I invited anyone to my boudoir. (Etym: from the French “bouder”, to sulk. How very apt in my case.) Marie Kondo – should bizarre circumstance ever conspire to bring her to the threshold – would run screaming from the Hovel before she’d even alighted the stairs from the front door.

I contemplate my bedroom. As I write, the cleaning lady is in it. To say that I have to spend half an hour cleaning out empty Wotsits packets, and indeed wotnot, before I let her in there should give you some idea of how shameful it has got. And even then I have to pay her to do so.

A girlfriend who used to be referred to often in these pages, though I think the term should be a rather less flippant one than “girlfriend”, managed to get round my natural messiness problem by inventing a game called “keep or chuck”.

She even made up a theme song for it, to the tune from the old Spiderman TV show. She would show me some object, which was not really rubbish, but usually a book (it may not surprise you to learn that it is the piles of books that cause most of the clutter here), and say, “Keep or chuck?” in the manner of a high-speed game show host. At one point I vacillated and so she then pointed at herself and said, “Keep or chuck?” I got the message.

These days the chances of a woman getting into the bedroom are remote. For one thing, you can’t just walk down the street and whistle for one much as one would hail a cab, although my daughter is often baffled by my ability to attract females, and suspects I have some kind of “mind ray”. Well, if I ever did it’s on the blink now, and not only that – right now, I’m not even particularly bothered that it’s on the blink. Because, for another thing, I would frankly not care to inflict myself upon anyone else at the moment.

It was all a bit of a giggle eight years ago, when I was wheeled out of the family home and left to my own devices. Of course, when I say “a bit of a giggle”, I mean “terrifying and miserable”, but I had rather fewer miles on the clock than I do now, and a man can, I think, get away with a little bit more scampish behaviour, and entertain a few more illusions about the future and his own plausibility as a character, when he is squarely in his mid-forties than when he is approaching, at speed, his middle fifties.

Death has rather a lot to do with it, I suppose. I had not actually seen, or touched, a dead body until I saw, and touched, my own father’s a few weeks ago. That’s what turns an abstract into a concrete reality. You finally put that to one side and gird up your loins – and then bloody David Bowie snuffs it, and you find yourself watching the videos for “Blackstar” and “Lazarus” over and over again, and reach the inescapable conclusion that death is not only incredibly unpleasant, it is also remorseless and very much nearer than you think.

And would you, dear reader, want to be involved with anyone who kept thinking along those lines? I mean, even if he learned how to fold his undercrackers into an upright cylinder, like a napkin at a fancy restaurant, before putting them in his drawer? When he doesn’t even have a drawer?

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war