Malaria vaccine: The fiction and the reality
Ann Patchett has earned all sorts of praise for her bestseller, "State of Wonder," but as engaging as the story is, the science left something -- well, several things -- to be desired.
In the end, the mystery in the Amazon rain forest depends on the assumption (spoiler alert ahead!) that a pharmaceutical company would see all sorts of millions to be made with a drug that would allow 70-year-old women to become pregnant, but that no drug company would be interested if that same substance made an effective malaria vaccine.
Presumably, because most of the malaria deaths are among poor children in Africa, there is no money to be made. (Actually, the rain forest stuff wouldn't really qualify as a vaccine; it's a preventive medicine, taken every day.)
Fortunately, that's fiction. The reality is that with all the money spent preventing and treating malaria, an effective vaccine would be snapped up by governments, charitable foundations and nonprofit medical organizations.
The even more heartening reality is that possible vaccines are in the pipeline. British drug maker GlaxoSmithKline has a malaria vaccine in advanced trials -- not a cure-all vaccine, but one with an effectiveness rate of more than 50% -- that could become available by 2015.
And last week, the New England Journal of Medicine reported on another vaccine, being developed by various research institutes, that appeared effective in children, though the trials are at a very early stage.
Close to 800,000 people died of malaria in 2009, and indeed, most of them are young children in Africa.
Photo: A boy waits to undergo testing for malaria in Manhica, Mozambique. Credit: Karel Prinsloo /Associated Press