Health and Healthcare Systems

African countries back new malaria vaccine, plus the other health stories you need to know about

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Top health news: Nigeria and Ghana back the new malaria vaccine, before WHO approval; and more.

Top health news: Nigeria and Ghana back the new malaria vaccine, before WHO approval; and more. Image: REUTERS/Baz Ratner

Shyam Bishen
Head, Centre for Health and Healthcare; Member of the Executive Committee, World Economic Forum
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  • This global round-up brings you health stories from the past fortnight.
  • Top health news: Nigeria and Ghana back the new malaria vaccine, before WHO approval; US Supreme Court preserves access to abortion pill; Argentina sterilizes mosquitos to combat Dengue outbreaks.

1. African countries approve malaria vaccine

Nigeria and Ghana have become the first countries in the world to back a new malaria shot. The R21 vaccine has been developed by scientists at Oxford University and manufactured by the Serum Institute of India and Novavax.

The move is unusual as it came before the World Health Organization's (WHO) approval. However, the urgency of addressing a disease that kills more than 600,000 people annually, most of them children under the age of five, in sub-Saharan Africa, and recent efforts to enhance drug oversight in the region, are changing the process.

Chart showing malaria deaths by world region, 1990-2019
Malaria kills more people in Africa than in any other region. Image: Our World in Data

The WHO says at least 10 other African countries' regulatory authorities are reviewing trial data to assess the shot and more of them are expected to approve it in the coming weeks. It has not confirmed which countries may be next, although Tanzania and Kenya have strong regulators and among the highest rates of the disease.

Late-stage trials have shown the shot to be 70%-80% effective. Serum Institute Chief Executive, Adar Poonawalla, says his company will produce millions of doses of the Oxford shot "at-risk" in the next two months. That means they do not yet have a buyer lined up among African governments or non-profit organizations that often procure for poorer countries.

The two biggest buyers of childhood vaccines worldwide – Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance and UNICEF – say they want WHO approval for the shot before they will fund campaigns. WHO Director-General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, says the process would be “expedited”. “We will not waste even a day,” he said.

2. US Supreme Court preserves access to abortion pill

Justices of the US Supreme Court have blocked new restrictions set by lower courts on a widely used abortion pill. Since the court's decision last year to overturn the landmark 1973 Roe v Wade decision that had legalized abortion nationwide, 12 US states have put in place outright bans, while many others prohibit abortion after a certain length of pregnancy.

The justices granted emergency requests by the government and the pill's manufacture to put on hold a preliminary injunction issued by a district judge in Texas. His order would have greatly limited the availability of mifepristone while litigation proceeds in a challenge by anti-abortion groups to the pill's federal regulatory approval.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved mifepristone in 2000. The challengers contend that the FDA illegally approved it and then removed critical safeguards on what they call a dangerous drug. Mifepristone is taken with another drug called misoprostol to perform a medication abortion, which accounts for more than half of all US abortions. The drug has other uses, including management of miscarriages.

The restrictions, had they taken effect, would have rolled back FDA actions in recent years and made it harder to access mifepristone. Those actions include allowing distribution by mail, and in 2016 approving its use up to 10 weeks of pregnancy instead of seven weeks, reducing the dosage required and cutting the number of in-person doctor visits from three to one.

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3. News in brief: More health stories from around the world

UNICEF says 67 million children worldwide have missed out on one or more routine vaccinations over the past three years. It blames the pandemic, conflict and a decline in confidence in jabs among parents in many countries.

AstraZeneca says it's confident that its new version of COVID-19 antibody treatment can protect immunocompromized patients against all known virus variants. AstraZeneca plans to make the antibody available by the end of 2023, pending positive data and regulatory approval.

China's foreign ministry says that from 29 April all inbound travellers will need to show only a COVID-19 antigen test result taken within 48 hours before boarding flights. China currently requires inbound travellers from some countries to take PCR tests before entering the country.

Equatorial Guinea has confirmed at least 16 positive cases of Marburg disease since the beginning of a recent outbreak. Marburg is a viral haemorrhagic fever that can have a fatality rate of up to 88%.

Air pollution can impact the health of people of all ages, according to new research, reports BBC News. A report commissioned by the Greater London Authority says it can stunt children's lung growth as well as cause chronic illnesses later in life.

One in three people in the US are estimated to be exposed to unhealthy pollution levels, reports The Guardian. The American Lung Association says people of colour are four times more likely than white people to live in polluted areas.

The UK is experiencing a diabetes crisis which is "rapidly escalating", according to The Guardian. Cases have exceeded 5 million for the first time, with many linked to sufferers being overweight, new research suggests.

Government scientists in Argentina are sterilizing mosquitoes using radiation that alters their DNA before releasing them into the wild, in an effort to tackle one of its worst outbreaks of dengue fever in recent years. More than 41,000 cases of the disease have been recorded, far above the equivalent level in previous years of major outbreaks in 2020 and 2016.

Scientists in the US say they have developed a new technique which could speed up the diagnosis of Parkinson's disease, The Guardian reports. They say they are now able to identify abnormal proteins which can build up long before symptoms develop.

Researchers in the UK say talking therapy can help cut the risk of cardiovascular disease in people suffering from depression, reports The Times. The research team says that the benefits are similar to those brought about by following a low-fat diet.

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4. More on health from Agenda

A total of 24 countries across Africa, the Caribbean and south Asia are currently reporting cholera outbreaks. An expert explains that extreme weather events, as well as geopolitical instability, are being blamed for the surge in cases.

Endometriosis affects around 10% of women and girls of reproductive age globally. US filmmaker Shannon Cohn has been speaking to the Radio Davos podcast about her new film, Below the Belt, which aims to help raise awareness of this under-reported disease.

What's the greatest barrier for people who'd like to take better care of their health? Cost, according to Edelman. The consultancy firm says there are opportunities for businesses to disrupt the system to drive meaningful change at both institutional and interpersonal levels.

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Contents
1. African countries approve malaria vaccine2. US Supreme Court preserves access to abortion pill3. News in brief: More health stories from around the world4. More on health from Agenda

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