The global fight against malaria took a stride forward on Monday as Cameroon started the world’s first routine vaccine program against the mosquito-borne disease, although Reuters journalists witnessed few people in clinics receiving the shot.

Around 40 years in the making, the World Health Organization (WHO)-approved RTS,S vaccine developed by British drugmaker GSK is meant to work alongside existing tools such as bed nets to combat malaria, which in Africa kills nearly half a million children under the age of five each year.

After successful trials, including in Ghana and Kenya, Cameroon is the first country to administer doses through a routine program that 19 other countries aim to roll out this year, according to global vaccine alliance Gavi.

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About 6.6 million children in these countries are targeted for malaria vaccination through 2024-25.

“For a long time, we have been waiting for a day like this,” said Mohammed Abdulaziz of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) at a joint online briefing with the WHO, Gavi and other organizations.

Caroline Badefona, manager of Cliniques des Anges hospital in Douala, said five girls and one boy aged six months were vaccinated at her hospital on Monday.

A doctor tests a child for malaria

A doctor at the Ithani-Asheri Hospital in Arusha, Tanzania, is seen administering a malaria test to a child on May 11, 2016. (REUTERS/Katy Migiro/File Photo)

“It went very well,” she said. “We are proud to have this program in place because it will eradicate malaria in children aged six to 59 months.”

In a health center in the northern Cameroon district of Datcheka, 12 children were vaccinated early on Monday, according to a Reuters reporter.

But health workers in other centers told Reuters that parents had not been adequately informed about the vaccine, and some were afraid to consent to their children receiving it.

Others were not even aware of the start of the campaign.

“The reason I didn’t accept is because I wasn’t made aware of it – I didn’t know it existed,” said Audrey Stella, a mother who declined to have her child vaccinated at the Japoma District Hospital in Douala.

CASES RISING

Disruption linked to the COVID pandemic and other issues have hindered the fight against malaria in recent years with cases rising by around 5 million year-on-year in 2022, according to the WHO.

Overall, more than 30 countries in Africa have expressed interest in introducing the vaccine and fears of a supply squeeze have eased since a second vaccine completed a key regulatory step in December.

Rolling out the second vaccine “is expected to result in sufficient vaccine supply to meet the high demand and reach millions more children”, the WHO’s director of immunization, Kate O’Brien, said at the briefing.

This R21 vaccine, developed by the University of Oxford and the Serum Institute of India, could be launched in May or June, said Gavi’s Chief Programme Officer, Aurelia Nguyen.

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“Having two vaccines for malaria will help to close the huge gap between demand and supply and could save tens of thousands of young lives, especially in Africa,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the WHO, at a meeting of the U.N. body’s executive board on Monday.

Some experts have expressed skepticism about the potential impact of the vaccines, saying attention and funding should not be drawn away from the wider fight against the age-old killer and the use of established preventative tools like bed nets.

Health experts at the briefing said the roll-out was accompanied by extensive community out-reach to combat any vaccine hesitancy and emphasize the importance of continuing to use all protective measures alongside the vaccines.

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