The terrible irony was not lost on Dr. Nekoye Otsyula as she sat beside her two-year-old daughter’s hospital bed: a veteran malaria researcher’s daughter had been struck down by malaria.
For four harrowing days, Nekoye watched her daughter struggle to bounce back from the life-threatening illness. While her daughter eventually recovered, the experience changed Nekoye. Her professional commitment to malaria research hardened into a personal passion to eliminate the disease.
“Seeing your child, who was previously active and playing, now unable to move…You stop looking at malaria as a researcher,” she says. “You look at it now as a mom.”
Progress toward a vaccine
For four years, Nekoye has worked alongside other scientists at the KEMRI/Walter Reed Project’s Kombewa Clinical Research Center on trials of the most clinically advanced malaria vaccine candidate. Work to advance the RTS,S vaccine candidate is supported by the PATH Malaria Vaccine Initiative, together with partner GlaxoSmithKline Vaccines and scientists at 11 trial sites in seven African countries.
As a staff physician, Nekoye provides medical care for children in the trials. As a research officer, she is involved in two ongoing studies of the vaccine candidate—a large efficacy trial with 1,631 enrolled children and a smaller trial with 126 enrolled children, all of whom are HIV positive.
The pivotal phase 3 efficacy trial will provide data about RTS,S in different malaria parasite transmission settings and different age groups, as well as information on the impact of a booster dose. Final trial results are expected in late 2014.
Depending on the results, the World Health Organization may issue a policy recommendation in 2015, paving the way for African nations to decide whether to use the vaccine as part of their immunization programs.
The “malaria capital”
Nekoye calls the area where she lives and works in western Kenya the country’s “malaria capital,” where the disease is a leading cause of death for children under age five. Malaria is so common in the communities that ring Lake Victoria that many people are resigned to the disease and may not seek treatment until it’s too late.
If the vaccine trial is successful, Nekoye is hopeful that a malaria vaccine will be a powerful addition to the tools available to fight malaria, including insecticide-treated bednets, proper treatment, and accurate diagnosis.
“If you have all those [tools] working together,” she says, “it means more children can be in school every day.”