Kenya adopted a bold policy Thursday to vaccinate children against the devastating disease, helping that country take a major step forward against HIV/AIDS.
But the challenge of reaching every child with the new vaccine, known as Covid-19, has sparked controversy because some have warned that it could prevent future Malaria and dengue infections by allowing some mosquitoes to survive without immunity.
Covid-19 is a vaccine produced by scientists at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, and is being co-developed by PATH, a Seattle-based nonprofit, and the drugmaker Sanofi. The specific components of the vaccine have been under development for about five years, and they could have significant implications for the future of HIV/AIDS, the disease that killed nearly 20 million people worldwide in 2009.
“There is much evidence to support that Covid-19 represents a significant advance, both in terms of its potential impact on HIV disease burden, and its potential to help alleviate the poverty and stigma around the world,” said Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
Under the Kenya vaccination mandate, children who are members of families who cannot afford the $5 fee or those who are receiving the vaccine for other reasons must get vaccinated.
“HIV-1 is a single-strain infection. In some cases, such as the more severe cases of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS), the virus mutates and develops resistance to the vaccine, but it is unlikely to do so in the more common lower-rung infections of malaria and dengue,” read the government policy published Thursday.
HIV/AIDS affects about 45 million people worldwide. The vast majority are in sub-Saharan Africa, where many children are believed to be carrying the HIV virus at birth. Parents are most likely to be infected themselves or in a sexual relationship with someone carrying the virus. By the time they are 15 or younger, more than a third have been infected.
The Kenyan government had expressed a desire to vaccinate children as a means of extending a potential cure into the next generation, and of countering child-toddler losses caused by malaria.
Part of the controversy is related to some other vaccines. Vaccines designed to eliminate malaria and dengue were introduced around the globe last year. Some critics raised concerns that the vaccines could actually discourage or delay natural immunity to the viruses and slow down other preventative measures such as eliminating mosquito breeding sites.
But other scientists have advocated for the widespread adoption of these vaccines, and the Kenyan government said that once the Covid-19 vaccine is used in trials of the other strains of the malaria and dengue viruses, public health experts will be encouraged to endorse it for wider use.
In recent years, an international campaign against pandemic malaria has helped to dramatically lower the number of infections. In 2009, nearly half of all Africa’s population — 584 million people — was suffering from the disease.
But more than a third still carry active infections. Some critics have argued that the poor quality of many pre-vaccine cocktails means that the public health gains achieved by existing medicines are at risk of being erased.
More research is needed to understand the potential of these vaccines, the World Health Organization said.
“The WHO has been working closely with the stakeholders in Kenya on this matter and has full confidence in the approach adopted by the Kenyan government, which not only protects the children and their families, but also provides protection against mosquito-borne diseases,” it said in a statement.
The threat of dengue and malaria outbreaks has forced the government to limit travel to affected areas, and Kenya will likely take similar steps with a new cervical cancer vaccine. The country has pushed back a tentative plan to roll out the vaccine in 2015.
“I am a child of the colonial era and I know there were no vaccines for anything,” said Edward Kagia, an immunologist at the University of Nairobi. “However, since the 1980s, we have developed vaccines for virtually every disease, and we are making rapid progress.”
This article was written by Christopher Kamango, a reporter with the Agence France-Presse.