Malaria Fighter

3 minute read
Michael D. Lemonick and Ruth Ansah Ayisi/ManhiçA

Even in Africa, the continent most severely affected by a disease that kills more than a million people each year, Mozambique is considered a hot spot. In some parts of the country, 9 out of 10 kids younger than age 5 are infected with the mosquito-borne parasite that causes malaria. That’s why Dr. Pedro Alonso, a Spaniard, in 1996 founded the Manhiça Health Research Centre. The terribly impoverished rural town is the last place you would expect to find a sophisticated medical laboratory. But here, working with a team of mostly Mozambican scientists and backed by the Spanish Agency for International Cooperation, Alonso has been studying malaria on the ground and, for the past four years, testing an extraordinarily promising vaccine against the disease. So far, it’s only partly effective, but even in this imperfect form, experts say, it could save millions of lives. “We’re talking about the first solid demonstration of a malaria vaccine,” says Alonso. “This is a breakthrough.”

So why hasn’t anyone developed a malaria vaccine before now? Part of the problem is that the parasite is so biologically complex that it’s difficult to prime the immune system to fight it off. And part is that most of its victims are so poor that drug companies are reluctant to take experimental vaccines out of their lab and into the field for human trials. But an organization called the Malaria Vaccine Initiative, started by the Gates Foundation in 1999 and now supported by a growing list of corporate contributors, is making such trials–including Alonso’s– possible.

Alonso’s trial involves 2,000 children ages 1 to 4 taking a vaccine originally developed by GlaxoSmithKline. The vaccine reduced the risk of clinical (symptomatic) malaria 30%, new infections 45% and new episodes of severe, life-threatening malaria in those already infected an average of 58%. In the children less than 2 years old, it cut the risk of severe malaria 77%. The next step, says Alonso, is to test the vaccine in children younger than a year old. Then trials will be expanded into other countries. “If all goes well,” he says, “we should have an approved vaccine by 2010.”

That would be deeply satisfying to Alonso, 46, who, with his wife Clara, has been fighting malaria for nearly 20 years. “When you arrive as a young doctor in Africa,” he says, “and you walk into a hospital, you’re basically confronted with this massive disease that causes so much suffering and death. It is impossible not to become passionate about fighting it.” Says the father of three: “Those children in the hospital are looking at us, telling us to put more effort, more resources, more brains, more research, to come out with solutions. They are a constant reminder of all that needs to be done.”

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