A vaccine for malaria may not seem to be a big deal for the Western world, or even the Eastern world, but it will make a huge difference in Africa where over 260,000 children die from the disease annually.
A new vaccine, developed by GlaxoSmithKline, has proved effective against the deadliest of the five parasites that cause malaria. Results from a trial of 800,000 children in Kenya, Ghana and Malawi showed a 30% reduction in the number of cases of severe malaria, which led to hospital admissions. 30% sounds like a small percentage, but when put it against 260,000 deaths a year, it is significant.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) is recommending the use of this new vaccine. It is the first time any vaccine has proved to significantly reduce deaths from malaria. Medical science has been trying for decades to produce one that works. Pills have been available for years. I remember taking daily Paludrin tablets as a volunteer in Sierra Leone in 1968, but a vaccine has proved elusive.
Malaria is bad for many reasons. First, it can kill you. Second, it never really goes away, and you can’t give blood, ever. Third, it can cause long-term harm, including growth stunting, and a form of impaired growth that affects the ability to learn. The effect on the young children of Africa is enormous but, when you add the death rates for “above-five-year-olds”, and then include adults, the economic and health impacts are debilitating and incalculable.
However, the production of this new vaccine, the “RTS,S” vaccine, is only a start. There are four more parasites to contend with, not to mention the monumental tasks of production and distribution. The current dismal performance in getting the COVID 19 vaccine to poorer countries is a case-in-point.
I might also suggest that choosing a more encouraging name for the vaccine might help! Who could possibly agree to something called “RTS,S” being injected into your body?
There is another issue that will face African governments if this vaccine becomes widely available on a grand scale. We all hope it will happen, but there is a cost that is not directly financial or logistical. It is an issue that is difficult to address even privately, let alone publicly. It is the issue of population control.
Kenya is a good example of what happens when populations get better health care and a higher standard of living. Better health care and more money produced more children that lived. As an example, traditionally Kenyan women had, say, twelve children, in the hope that a few would live into adulthood. After the economic and health boom, Kenyan women were still having twelve children but, then, ten of them were living past childhood. Family economics were destroyed, and the country struggled not to return to poverty. If the “RTS,S” vaccine is successful, many countries will face that same dilemma – how do you handle the resulting boom in population that the vaccine could bring.
I have said before that one of the biggest challenges mankind faces, perhaps the biggest, is what to do about the world’s exponential population growth. Demographics can easily predict the disaster we are facing, but virtually no-one is brave enough to publicly confront the issue.
In the past, major pandemics, and the occasional war, have solved the population growth problem for us, but we have all but eliminated these more extreme versions of population control. That leaves us with human decisions, and those are fraught with controversy.
How do you encourage a healthier world, while controlling a population growth that can destroy that gain?
No-one would deny that reducing the impact of malaria on African children is laudable and necessary, but it will come at a cost. The same is true of the world’s population in general.
Yes, we definitely need to control world population growth before it overwhelms us, but how?
Unfortunately, the longer we bury our heads in the sand, and avoid the issue, the more draconian will be the actions required to solve the problem.
Time to wake up and face reality.