In 2015, Brigit Atieno from Homabay county lost her two-year-old son, who succumbed to malaria.
For the 40-year-old mother of three, delay in seeking medical assistance for her late son cost his life.
“It was late into the night when my son was overwhelmed. I did not have money to rush him to the nearest hospital which is 20 kilometers away from our village. By the time I found help from a friend, his condition had worsened, and minutes after arriving at the hospital, we lost him,” she narrates.
Atieno had been relying on over-the-counter medication to manage her son’s condition, which she had misjudged as a normal headache.
Since the incident, Atieno says she never takes chances with her children’s health.
She got a huge relief when the government, through the Ministry of Health with support from World Health Organization, introduced the use of the world’s first-ever approved malaria vaccine, the RTS,S/AS01 (or RTS,S), in the malaria Lake-endemic region.
“All my three children are under the age of three years and this vaccine has been a real savior for me,” she says.
The launch of the malaria vaccine with additional protection for better results was on March 7, 2023, in Vihiga county, Kenya.
Endless hospital visits
And just like Atieno, the majority of mothers in the Western region of Kenya are seeing an end to endless hospital visits occasioned by child malaria attacks.
38-year-old Jemimah Muyela from Vihiga county says before the vaccine came, she would visit the hospital at least once in two months.
The mother of two says her two and four-year-old sons were prone to malaria attacks, but the vaccine has saved her the trouble.
“Since 2021, I have not visited any hospital to seek medication for my children because they have not been under any malaria attack,” said Muyela.
“Seeing them healthy has been my joy. The pain of seeing them battle malaria was hard-to-bear,” she added.
Muyela says the hospital visits would drain her not only emotionally and physically but also timewise.
“By making trips to the hospital and sometimes being forced to stay there for days meant that I could do nothing else, including house chores,” she said.
She says the vaccine has saved her the money she would spend on road trips to and from the hospital.
Muyela notes that with the availability of the vaccine, her children are now healthy, and their growth has been steady for the past two years.
“Now I can fully concentrate on other things like farming knowing that my children are well protected,” she said.
Edith Akoth, a mother of two from Siaya county, says she would spend at least KSh. 1,000 on the treatment of her three-year-old daughter every time she contracted malaria.
Akoth says that sometimes she would be forced to borrow money from friends and relatives, which threw her into unnecessary debt.
For Akoth, the malaria vaccine has saved her the trouble of spending money she does not have on treating malaria.
“Since my children received the vaccine, life has been easy and the debts have gone,” Akoth said.
Andrea Shivanga, from Vihiga county, sold his only dairy cow to settle hospital bills after his four-year-old daughter was admitted for almost a month battling malaria.
Shivanga says the dairy cow was his major source of income, and selling it disoriented his family’s economic standing.
“The cow would give me 25 liters of milk daily which we supplied to people and made money out of,” said Shivanga.
Atieno, Muyela, Akoth and Shivanga all agree that the malaria vaccine is saving money they would be spending on treatment each time malaria struck.
“The money we used to put in the treatment of malaria can now be used on food and other needs like education,” they agreed.
Dr. Prisca Shisia says that, on average, a mother can spend one week attending to a child with malaria either in the hospital or at home.
She says a mother with a sick child will have less time to take care of other children in case she has others and that other house needs will go unattended.
“When a child is sick with malaria, they will need their mother’s full attention. This means that the other children will miss something and this always impacts negatively.
A sick child affects the mother’s psychological and physical standing and if such a mother is working, that will affect her performance at work,” she said.
Dr. Shisia adds that the malaria vaccine approval should have happened decades ago, which she says would have helped Africa become a malaria-free region.
Since the introduction of the vaccine in 2019, Kenya has vaccinated nearly 400,000 children with at least one dose of the vaccine.
More than one million doses of the four-dose malaria vaccine are being administered to children across eight malaria-endemic counties.
Health Cabinet Secretary Susan Nakhumicha says the vaccine has seen a reduction in both malaria infections and deaths.
“Over the past three years, we’ve seen a dramatic reduction in the number of malaria cases and hospitalizations from malaria in areas where the vaccine has been administered. We are excited to now be able to offer this additional malaria tool to more of our children,” said the CS.
The Kenya Malaria Indicator Survey (KMIS) shows that Kenya’s malaria prevalence rate in the Lake-endemic region, where the vaccine was piloted, dropped from 27% to 19%.
Africa roll out
The World Health Organization (WHO) has already rolled out the extended use of the vaccine across African countries that are malaria endemic.
In 2021 WHO recommended the broader use of the vaccine among children in sub-Saharan Africa and other regions with moderate to high P. falciparum malaria transmission.
RTS,S is the first vaccine recommended by WHO to prevent malaria in children.
The Kenya National Immunization Technical Advisory Group (KENITAG) has given the green light to the upscaling of the vaccine within the country’s malaria lake-endemic region.
The vaccine is manufactured by GlaxoSmithKline, with Mosquirix as the market name.
Twelve African countries have applied for funding from Gavi, The Vaccine Alliance, seeking permission to roll out the use of the vaccine.
Gavi will invest some $160 million for a broader vaccine roll-out in endemic countries in Africa between 2022 and 2025.
WHO says that African countries that piloted the vaccine have recorded a huge drop in the number of children being hospitalized for contracting malaria as well as reductions in child malaria-occasioned deaths.
According to WHO, over 1.2 million children have been vaccinated with RTS,S in Ghana, Kenya and Malawi.
In the three countries, nearly 3.8 million doses of the malaria vaccine have been administered since the 2019 start of phased or pilot introductions by WHO and Gavi.
In October 2021, WHO recommended wider use of the RTS,S malaria vaccine for the prevention of P.falciparum malaria in children living in regions with moderate to high transmission.
WHO Kenya Country Representative, Abdourahmane Diallo, says the expansion is meant to provide access to this additional malaria tool to more children at risk of malaria attacks and death in Africa.
Official data from WHO shows that RTS,S has similar efficacy to Seasonal Malaria Chemoprevention (SMC).
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SMC is an approach to protect children by clearing existing infections and preventing malaria infections during the season of greatest risk through administering necessary medications.
WHO says that SMC prevents about 75% of clinical malaria cases when provided just before the peak rainy season.