Skip to main content
opinion

A malaria test indicates a positive result for Tigrayan refugee Hareg, 23, from Mekelle, Ethiopia, administered by surgeon and doctor-turned-refugee, Dr. Tewodros Tefera, at the Sudanese Red Crescent clinic in Hamdayet, eastern Sudan, near the border with Ethiopia, on March 17, 2021. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)Nariman El-Mofty/The Associated Press

The vaccines that are flooding into Canada these days are a scientific marvel. Created, tested, manufactured and shipped at record speed, they promise to handcuff the virus that has terrorized much of the world over the past year. But the greatest vaccine news of the season may prove to have nothing to do with COVID-19.

Malaria is one of humankind’s oldest and deadliest afflictions. The mosquito-borne disease has altered the outcome of wars and the fate of empires. Hippocrates, the “father of medicine,” described its effects. Oliver Cromwell and Abraham Lincoln fell ill with it. Countless millions have suffered and died from it over the millennia.

Recent decades have seen great advances in the fight against malaria. Draining swamps and using insecticides all but eliminated it in rich countries. Distributing bed nets and administering anti-malarial drugs reduced fatality in poor, tropical ones. The number of annual deaths has fallen by more than half in the past quarter century. But despite all that progress, around 400,000 people a year still die of malaria, two-thirds of them young children. Many more are sickened. The world saw 229 million cases in 2019.

As National Geographic put it: “Every second, seven people somewhere on Earth encounter one of humankind’s most prolific killers: a shape-shifting parasite carried in the saliva of female mosquitoes that can evade our immune systems and live in our livers and blood cells. Every two minutes, the parasite claims another victim under the age of five years old – and brings another round of heartbreak and loss. This grim cycle plays out every hour, every day, every week, every year.”

Inventing a vaccine against malaria has proved to be devilishly hard. The disease is carried by a parasite, not a virus. The parasite goes through several stages of life and is far more genetically complex than the coronavirus. Even the most effective malaria vaccine produced to date has only about 55-per-cent efficacy.

Now comes what could be a breakthrough. Last month a study on the results of a trial involving 450 children in Burkina Faso showed that a new vaccine has up to 77-per-cent efficacy. The University of Oxford scientists behind it said the R21/Matrix-M vaccine is the first to meet a World Health Organization goal of at least 75-per-cent efficacy, and they plan to conduct a much larger trial with children in four African countries. While experts warn it is best to be cautious until the results arrive in 2023 or 2024, the inventors say the vaccine has the potential to reduce the toll from malaria dramatically.

Taming the disease would be the crowning achievement in a golden age of medical progress. It may be hard to absorb just now, in the midst of a crippling pandemic, but the greatest triumphs of humanity in recent times have been in the field of public health.

One by one, we have tackled the great scourges: cholera, smallpox, polio, tuberculosis, measles. The age when two out of every five children died before reaching adulthood is long gone. Life expectancy has doubled in the past century. The proportion of the world’s population living in extreme poverty has plummeted to about 10 per cent, the lowest in history.

In a world where what went wrong yesterday usually eclipses what went right, these stupendous advances in human welfare often don’t register. The news about the promising malaria vaccine was largely lost in the blizzard of pandemic headlines. But it’s worth thinking about.

Like the effort to develop a COVID-19 vaccine, this advance is a testament to what science can achieve in the face of even the hardest problems. The vaccine is the result of years and years of patient, painstaking work by scientists from around the world. Malaria is the great puzzle of diseases, a challenge that has thwarted generations of vaccine researchers. It is one of the last mass killers – and, unlike COVID-19, it preys mainly on children.

Today it is one step closer to being tamed. At a time when the world around us can look bleak, that is heartening news indeed.

Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.