A historic day: Ghana introduces the first vaccine for malaria

April 25, 2019 by Dr. K.O. Antwi-Agyei

Pointing the way toward a future when malaria is finally brought under control, and then eliminated.

Two mothers give their 6-month-old babies Akwanyi and Susana the new malaria vaccine during the national launch of the Ghana Malaria Vaccine Implementation Program.

These two six-month-old babies were among the first to receive the new malaria vaccine during the national launch of the Malaria Vaccine Implementation Programme in Ghana.

PATH staff member Dr. Kwadwo Odei Antwi-Agyei previously managed the Expanded Programme on Immunisation for the Ghana Health Service from 2003 to 2013. Dr. K.O. played a pivotal role in controlling measles in Ghana, and under his leadership, Ghana was certified as polio-free.

Ghana takes the lead

When it comes to immunization, we in Ghana are used to taking the lead. We stand out among our neighbors by maintaining high childhood vaccination coverage, while also leading the way with successful new vaccine introductions. Exactly seven years ago, Ghana introduced pneumococcal and rotavirus vaccines, marking the first simultaneous introduction of two new vaccines for an African country. Now we are again in the vanguard by introducing the world’s first malaria vaccine in selected parts of the country.

This an important milestone. While we have made progress in reducing malaria burden on families and communities, the disease is still rampant in Ghana, and it takes its toll particularly on young children. By implementing this vaccine in a few areas of the country first, health officials can gather data and information necessary to decide how a malaria vaccine could be added to the broader arsenal of malaria control tools and strategies currently in use.

A homegrown solution

This is also an important milestone because we place such high value on homegrown solutions for health. Much of the important data we use to determine introduction of vaccines and other health interventions tend to come from overseas. In this phased introduction, the data we generate in Brong Ahafo, Central, and Volta Regions will help the country decide on wider use of a malaria vaccine in Ghana and potentially in other areas where malaria claims so many lives.

If the phased introduction goes as planned, we should have local data and information to determine—after vaccinating roughly 200,000 children from around 6 months to 24 months of age—how best to deliver four doses of the vaccine, the potential of the vaccine to reduce deaths among children, and its safety profile when used routinely.

Ghana has experience with this malaria vaccine. When the vaccine was tested across seven countries in a five-year clinical trial that ended in 2014, more than 2,500 Ghanaian children took part at sites in Agogo and Kintampo.

Our own scientists participated in the vaccine’s development. They came from a range of institutions, including the School of Medical Sciences at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, Agogo Presbyterian Hospital, and the Ghana Health Service’s Kintampo Health Research Centre.

In Ghana, this step to introduce the vaccine in selected areas builds on our experience with the clinical trial. When WHO issued a call for African countries to express interest in phased introduction, we were one of ten countries that responded positively. Our selection, along with Kenya and Malawi, meant that we could implement the only vaccine that has shown a protective effect against malaria among young children in a Phase 3 trial. We were selected, in part, because of our high-performing malaria and immunization programs. We elected to participate because we know how to deliver vaccines. We also know that immunization is one of the most cost-effective ways to address some of the worst health problems in our communities, measles being a typical example.

Malaria vaccine introduction in Ghana will be a historic moment, and point the way toward a future when malaria is finally brought under control, and then eliminated.