Africa vaccine trial new push against malaria

By Andrew Quinn

BAGAMOYO, Tanzania (Reuters) - Billionaire Bill Gates and thousands of babies are helping Africa prepare its largest medical experiment ever, in the search for a new vaccine against malaria.

Researchers say the push comes at a crucial time in the battle against a disease which has been beaten back several times before, only to resurge with deadly vigor.

For Dr. Zena Mtajuka, an exhausted warrior on the frontlines of the fight against one of the planet’s most devastating diseases, a vaccine cannot come quickly enough.

“Malaria is our number one killer in this district,” said Mtajuka in her cramped office at Bagamoyo District Hospital north of Tanzania’s capital Dar es Salaam.

“The hardest thing is that members of the community come to the hospital too late. It makes them harder to save.”

Bagamoyo is one of almost a dozen research sites where scientists are in the final stages of preparing for a large-scale efficacy and safety trial of the “RTS,S” vaccine developed by GlaxoSmithKline PLC.

The trial, which is slated to begin in early 2009 and will involve 16,000 children in seven African countries, is the largest ever undertaken on the continent. Its funders, including groups supported by the Gates Foundation, hope it will result in a new and effective strategy against the disease.

Bagamoyo’s malaria burden is typical of many places in tropical Africa, home to most of the roughly one million people who die each year because of the mosquito-borne illness.

Public health officials estimate malaria costs Africa $12 billion due to deaths and lost productivity, a twin burden the world’s poorest continent cannot afford.

Public health advocates have cited malaria as an emerging global health success story, with new drugs, bed nets and insecticides contributing to sharp drops in infection rates in a number of countries.

Mtajuka said insecticide-treated bed nets and indoor spraying are not universally available here despite campaigns to promote them.

“Some people are using bed nets, but not all of them. Some are simply too poor to afford them,” Mtajuka said. “And since I’ve been here there’s been no indoor spraying. I think we had it once, three years ago, but not since then.”

Mtajuka, who already manages the hospital’s HIV/AIDS clinic, had to learn the malaria job fast. Her predecessor as malaria officer died earlier this year — of malaria.

MEASURING SUCCESS

Like many African doctors, Mtajuka remains swamped by malaria cases — which proponents say underscores the need for a vaccine to stop the deadly parasite in its tracks.  Continued…

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