The world may be one step closer to a vaccine for malaria, a disease that threatens half the world's population and has an enormous economic impact. Direct costs related to treatment of the illness and premature death total at least $12 billion a year, and indirect effects due to loss of productivity make that total even higher. For many of the economies seeking to emerge as successors to China that are located where malaria is prevalent, an effective vaccine would go a long way toward eliminating this constraint on economic growth.
While new strains of bird flu and coronaviruses like Middle East Respiratory Syndrome have received the bulk of media attention in recent months, malaria remains one of the world's most economically devastating diseases. Malaria is caused by a parasite carried by mosquitos. The disease infected roughly 220 million people and killed 660,000 in 2010.
While there are numerous ongoing efforts to prevent the disease, an early trial of a new malaria vaccine is showing promise. Researchers at the Maryland-based National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases have based their vaccine on studies from the 1970s, showing that irradiated mosquitos carrying a weakened form of the parasite could provide a level of immunity to people bitten. Fifteen people (an extremely small sample size) were given this new vaccine intravenously in multiple (but varying) doses about a month apart, with 12 out of the 15 people being completely protected. All six subjects who received the maximum amount of vaccine were protected.
The vaccine will have to overcome numerous hurdles and constraints in order to be considered an effective tool. First, it must be tested on a much larger population in numerous trials to prove both its safety and effectiveness. Additionally, administering the vaccine intravenously in multiple doses and storing it in liquid nitrogen are not ideal and would make widespread distribution difficult, if not impossible, in many of the most-affected countries. Furthermore, the vaccine has proved effective against only a single strain of one of the four main species of malaria at this time.
However, this type of vaccine could provide an additional benefit, even if it cannot be widely implemented. The new vaccine initiates an immune response to attack the parasite during the infective stage in its cycle. Presumably, uninfected mosquitos that bit vaccinated individuals would then be essentially "immunized" themselves, preventing the spread of the disease at its source.
Aside from the human costs, malaria carries direct and indirect economic costs. Beyond the initial infection, malaria can cause chronic fatigue and other long-lasting effects. Moreover, the need to care for sick family members can contribute to decreased productivity in the work force. For many of the economies that could emerge as low-end manufacturers, a large labor pool is one of the factors promoting emerging economic growth. Most of the countries in the PC-16 — a group of economies likely to prosper as China's role as a source of cheap labor declines — are in areas where one or more types of malaria are endemic.
Much as infrastructure and port development will be vital to the success of these emerging economies, so too will be the elimination of other indirect mitigating factors, including disease. There has been some success in controlling malaria in countries like Sri Lanka and Thailand, where intensive, multi-pronged programs target the disease from multiple angles, making personal preventive measures (mosquito nets and preventative medications) widely available and facilitating the liberal use of pesticides. However, because malaria does not stop at borders, geography and the efforts of neighboring countries will also play a role in the success or failure of anti-malarial programs.
A vaccine would provide relief from the constant vigilance required at present to implement successful anti-malarial programs. While a successful vaccine is likely years away, curing the disease in such a way would have a profound effect on the economies of these countries and could spur even greater economic growth.