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African countries chosen to test world's first malaria vaccine

Three African countries have been chosen to test the world's first malaria vaccine, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has announced.

Ghana, Kenya and Malawi will begin piloting the injectable vaccine next year with hundreds of thousands of young children, who have been at highest risk of death.

The vaccine, which has partial effectiveness, has the potential to save tens of thousands of lives if used with existing measures, according to the WHO regional director for Africa, Dr Matshidiso Moeti.

The challenge is whether impoverished countries can deliver the required four doses of the vaccine for each child.

Malaria remains one of the world's most stubborn health challenges, infecting more than 200 million people every year and killing about half a million, most of them children in Africa.

Bed netting and insecticides are still the chief protection.

Sub-Saharan Africa is the hardest hit by the disease, with about 90% of the world's cases in 2015.

Malaria spreads when a mosquito bites someone already infected, sucks up blood and parasites, and then bites another person.

A global effort to counter malaria has led to a 62% cut in deaths between 2000 and 2015, the WHO said.

But the UN agency has said in the past that such estimates are based mostly on modelling, and data is so poor for 31 countries in Africa - including those believed to have the worst outbreaks - that it could not tell if cases have been rising or falling in the last 15 years.

The vaccine will be tested on children aged from five to 17 months to see whether protective effects shown so far in clinical trials can hold up under real-life conditions.

At least 120,000 children in each of the three countries will receive the vaccine, which has taken decades of work and hundreds of millions of dollars to develop.

Kenya, Ghana and Malawi were chosen for the vaccine pilot because all have strong prevention and vaccination programmes but continue to have high numbers of malaria cases, the WHO said.

The countries will deliver the vaccine through their existing vaccination schemes.

The WHO is hoping to wipe out malaria by 2040 despite increasing resistance problems to both drugs and insecticides used to kill mosquitoes.

In December, Kathryn Maitland, professor of tropical paediatric infectious diseases at Imperial College London, wrote in the the New England Journal of Medicine: " The slow progress in this field is astonishing, given that malaria has been around for millennia and has been a major force for human evolutionary selection, shaping the genetic profiles of African populations.

"Contrast this pace of change with our progress in the treatment of HIV, a disease a little more than three decades old."

The malaria vaccine has been developed by pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline, and the 49 million dollars (£38 million) for the first phase of the pilot is being funded by the global vaccine alliance GAVI, UNITAID and Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.

Malaria is also present in south-east Asia, Latin America and the Middle East.

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