First Malaria Vaccine Officially Rolled out in Kenya

Kenya’s Ministry of Health announced that starting on March 7, 2023, more children in the country will benefit from the added protection of the world’s first malaria vaccine, RTS, S/AS01 (or RTS, S). The malaria vaccine expansion follows the Kenya National Immunization Technical Advisory Group (KENITAG) recommendation for expansion within Kenya’s lake-endemic region and the 2021 World Health Organization (WHO) recommendation for broader use of the vaccine among children in sub-Saharan Africa and in other regions with moderate to high P. falciparum malaria transmission.

Kenya is one of three countries—alongside Ghana and Malawi—where the RTS, S malaria vaccine is already in use, following the 2019 start of pilot or phased introduction in parts of the country. Since then, Kenya has provided more than one million doses of the four-dose malaria vaccine to children across eight counties, and close to 400,000 children have received at least one dose of the vaccine.

“We are thrilled to announce today that more children in Kenya will benefit from the life-saving protection offered by the world’s first malaria vaccine,” said Hon. Susan Nakhumicha Wafula, Cabinet Secretary for Health, Kenya. “Over the past three years, we’ve seen a dramatic reduction in the number of malaria cases and hospitalizations from malaria in areas where the vaccine has been administered. We are excited to be now able to offer this additional malaria tool to more of our children.”   

Since September 2019, Kenya’s National Vaccines, and Immunization Programme (NVIP) working collaboratively with the Division of National Malaria Program (DNMP) has provided the malaria vaccine as part of routine immunization in 26 sub-counties across eight counties in Western Kenya, namely Homabay, Kisumu, Migori, Siaya, Busia, Bungoma, Vihiga, and Kakamega. This WHO-coordinated pilot program has been made possible by a collaboration involving in-country and international partners, including the Ministry of Health, PATH, GSK, and UNICEF.

When the malaria vaccine was launched in Homabay county in 2019, the lake-endemic malaria region had a malaria prevalence of 27% which has now dropped to 19% according to data from the Kenya Malaria Indicator Survey(KMIS). This can be attributed to the integrated malaria prevention strategies including the utilization of long-lasting insecticide-treated nets, indoor residual spraying where available, prompt diagnosis and treatment, and the malaria vaccine as an additional and complementary malaria prevention tool.

To reach more children with the vaccine, the Ministry of Health is scaling up malaria vaccination in an additional 25 sub-counties within the eight lake-endemic counties. This had been made possible by funding from the US-based Open Philanthropy to PATH for the initial expansion of vaccine use in the pilot areas of Kenya, Ghana, and Malawi through 2023, using vaccine doses donated by GSK, the manufacturer.

“In the coming years, our objective is to continue to expand malaria vaccination to other parts of the country, as more supplies of the vaccine become available,” said Dr. Lucy Mecca, Head of the National Vaccines and Immunisation Program (NVIP).

“We will continue to expand the availability of the vaccine beyond 2023, including by applying—along with other countries—for support from Gavi, The Vaccine Alliance, for subnational use of the vaccine in areas of greatest need,” she added.

Expansions in Kenya, and similar expansions in Ghana and Malawi, are following a phased approach as additional vaccine supplies become available. Phased introduction in additional countries will begin as early as late 2023. Some 12 countries in Africa have already applied for funding from Gavi to introduce the vaccine. 

“As we welcome this additional tool to fight malaria and embrace the decision to reach many more communities and children, our objective is to continue to deploy malaria vaccination to other parts of the country, as more supplies of the vaccine become available,” said Dr. Abdourahmane Diallo, WHO Kenya country representative. “WHO is aware of the global limitation in vaccine supply and to address this, it has developed an allocation framework to ensure equity and fairness for access to the limited vaccine supply while working with manufacturers to increase capacity to meet global demands.” 

Proven results
Since the malaria vaccine was introduced in Kenya in 2019, the areas where it is available have witnessed a substantial drop in children being hospitalized and reductions in child deaths. A child gets four malaria vaccine doses. In Kenya, the first dose is given at six months of age, and the fourth dose at two years of age. The vaccine has been well accepted in communities, with demand remaining high even when additional visits to clinics by caregivers and children are required.

“Despite committed efforts in recent years, progress against malaria has stalled, and this new tool—the malaria vaccine—is needed more than ever to help us prevent unnecessary loss and suffering,” said Dr. Deen Omar, Head of the Division of National Malaria Program (DNMP).

“We welcome the malaria vaccine as one of the WHO-recommended interventions to prevent malaria in children and are cognizant of the fact that a combination of tools including long-lasting insecticide-treated nets, indoor residual spraying, and malaria chemoprevention strategies are needed along with the malaria vaccine to combat malaria,” he added.

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