Last month, the World Health Organization (WHO) sent joyous shock waves through the global health community and the Global South by officially recommending that the new RTS,S/AS01 (RTS,S) malaria vaccine be adopted into widespread use among children in sub-Saharan Africa and other regions with moderate to high P. falciparum malaria incidence. Now the international community, through Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, has just stepped forward to help finance the rollout of the world’s first malaria vaccine.
It has been true for some time that sub-Saharan Africa bears the largest malaria burden in the world, with children shouldering the largest proportion of deaths. Over 90% of global cases are on the continent, with children under the age of 5 years constituting a staggering two-thirds of all malaria deaths. This is due to a confluence of factors, not least because of the widespread prevalence of P. falciparum (the most deadly species of malaria parasite), and a very efficient mosquito that spreads it (Anopheles gambiae). The economic impact of malaria is estimated to cost Africa $12 billion every year—a figure that also factors in costs of healthcare, absenteeism, days lost in education, decreased productivity due to brain damage from cerebral malaria, and loss of investment and tourism. The introduction of an effective vaccine offers a beam of hope in the fight to mitigate the massive toll this centuries-old disease inflicts on Africa.
Maximal coverage defines the effectiveness of vaccination campaigns. Over one year after the start of the devastating COVID-19 pandemic, countries around the globe are vaccinating those ages 16 and older, while vaccine-producing companies are conducting vaccine trials for children. Positivity and hope infuse vaccine distribution efforts, but as these initiatives ensue, attention is being drawn to the challenges of vaccine distribution, namely, those left behind.
Mass vaccination campaigns are critical to the introduction of new vaccines, to providing doses to those who may have missed routine doses, and to giving a second opportunity to those who may not have developed immunity. In each instance, with greater coverage comes stronger, more resilient communities. However, zero-dose children, or children who have not received any routine vaccinations, are often missed by these campaigns. With every child left unvaccinated, communities’ vulnerability to vaccine-preventable diseases escalates. Fortunately, in bracing for future vaccination efforts, we can look to previous initiatives to guide our efforts. In particular, the potential of geospatial data and technology to ensure all, including zero-dose children, are included.
From June through to December 2020, Akros, in partnership with Johns Hopkins University, Macha Research Trust, and the Zambia Ministry of Health, utilized spatial intelligence and the Reveal platform to identify and vaccinate zero-dose children following a nationwide Zambian vaccination campaign for measles and rubella.