Cameroon launched the RTS,S malaria vaccine as part of its Expanded Program on Immunization (EPI) on Monday, January 22, becoming the first country to do so outside the Malaria Vaccine Implementation Program (MVIP) pilot run in Ghana, Kenya, and Malawi. The country's Minister of Public Health, Manaouda Malachie, hailed the day as "historic."
“We have been dispensing the malaria vaccine to our children since this morning, Monday, January 22, 2024. This dispensation is a step that will lead us to its official launch in March, in the presence of African health ministers who are looking at our experience,” he said.
Since 2019, Ghana, Kenya, and Malawi have administered the RTS,S vaccine to children around five months old in selected districts under the MVIP. Over two million children have been vaccinated against malaria in these three African countries, with more than eight million doses administered. This has resulted in a significant 13% reduction in all-cause mortality among vaccine-eligible children and a substantial decrease in severe malaria cases and hospitalizations, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
In Cameroon, the malaria vaccine targets children aged six months to December 31, 2023, across 42 selected health districts. The vaccine, injected into the thigh, will be administered according to a four-dose schedule. The goal is to reduce morbidity and mortality caused by Plasmodium falciparum, the parasite responsible for the deadliest forms of malaria.
Partners have expressed satisfaction with the vaccine's deployment in Cameroon, one of the 11 countries most affected by malaria worldwide. Dr. Phanuel Habimana, a WHO representative in Cameroon, stated that the launch of the malaria vaccine marks an important milestone in disease prevention and control.
“The launch of the malaria vaccine marks an important milestone in the prevention and control of the disease, in particular by protecting children against serious illness and death. We are committed to supporting national health authorities to ensure the effective deployment of the malaria vaccine,” the WHO explained.
Aurelia Nguyen, Director of Programs at Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, said in an interview with AFP that the introduction of the vaccine in Cameroon represents a real turning point. “Up until now, we've carried out small-scale pilot introductions in 3 countries - Kenya, Ghana and Malawi - to understand how to use the vaccine. Now, in Cameroon, we're moving straight into routine introduction. This is a real turning point. We've been working on a malaria vaccine for a very long time. It took 30 years. It's a very difficult disease because it's transmitted by a parasite with a very complicated life cycle. We have a tool that will be useful to us, with proven efficacy and safety: it's an important complementary tool,” she said in the interview.
However, the vaccine faces skepticism from some Cameroonians who doubt its safety. In response, the Ministry of Public Health assured in a press release issued on November 29, 2023, that the introduction process of this WHO-validated vaccine has followed all required steps. The ministry has also trained individuals in managing misinformation and false news about the RTS,S vaccine, with the support of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF).
Cameroon received 331,200 doses of the RTS,S malaria vaccine in November 2023. The initial shipment will vaccinate children in the 42 targeted districts before additional doses arrive "in the coming weeks," we learn.
Malaria remains a persistent threat in Cameroon, topping the charts for hospital consultations and claiming thousands of lives. The disease infects around 6 million people annually, with an estimated 4,000 succumbing in health facilities, primarily children under five. However, the World Health Organization (WHO) puts the country's death toll closer to 11,000 due to underreporting.
Despite the challenge, malaria control and prevention efforts supported by international partners have yielded progress. Other countries like Benin, Burkina Faso, and Liberia are also preparing to launch vaccination campaigns.
Patricia Ngo Ngouem