Cameroon’s malaria vaccine highlights a misinformation pandemic
Despite promising to save the lives of millions of children across Africa, Cameroon’s new malaria vaccine has had mixed reactions online.
A medical breakthrough came this week when Cameroon announced it will be the first country to roll out a routine malaria vaccination.
The news comes after a decades-long effort to curb the mosquito-spread disease across Africa — which accounts for 95% of global malaria deaths. Of those affected, children under age 5 are most vulnerable.
Cameroon hopes to vaccinate about 250,000 children over the next two years, and will be working with other African nations to help distribute the vaccine across the continent. This will — it’s hoped — immunise more than 6 million children by 2025.
There are, on average, around 250 million cases in Africa each year, resulting in 600,000 deaths, mostly in young children.
The vaccine, called Mosquirix, was endorsed by the World Health Organisation two years ago. It is only about 30% effective, requires four doses for protection, and starts to fade after several months.
Experts hope that a second vaccination currently being developed by Oxford University and approved by WHO in October might be a more practical, long-term solution. But it’s believed Mosquirix will still dramatically reduce severe cases of malaria and save thousands of lives.
Despite the positive implications of this medical breakthrough, however, it’s had mixed reactions online. Especially from those in Western countries.
Social users have vocalised their concerns about the long-term implications of a new vaccine, echoing similar sentiment towards the Covid-19 vaccinations in 2020.
“Let’s see what the excuse is when excess deaths soar in Cameroon. Let me guess climate change [sic]”, said one user beneath a BBC news post. “Hard no”, said another.
Despite clinical trials demonstrating the vaccine’s robust potential to save lives, it’s striking to see such a backlash from the international community. The BBC also reported that fear and doubts about the safety and efficacy of the vaccine have been raised within Cameroon.
Medical anxiety is nothing new. If anything, it spiked following the Covid-19 pandemic, and vaccine hesitancy will be a potential blocker to the success of the malaria vaccine’s roll-out.
But the spread of misinformation and negative sentiment online is incredibly dangerous, especially when it comes to life-saving medical breakthroughs.
Conspiracy theories, baseless claims, and anecdotal evidence are shared at an alarming rate, contributing to a growing distrust in established medical practices.
The fight against anti-vax rhetoric is not just about countering false claims; it is about safeguarding the progress made in modern medicine and protecting vulnerable populations from preventable diseases.
On the flip side, it’s also important to note that the new malaria vaccine isn’t the be-all-and-end-all. It can’t entirely stop transmission, so other tools like bed nets and insecticidal sprays will remain critical to fighting the disease.
The Mosquirix vaccine will, however, be distributed free of charge. Those working in Cameroon’s public health sector hope this will be an opportunity to educate people about the vaccine, as much as it will be a chance to distribute it as efficiently as possible.
‘When people say they are being used as guinea pigs, that’s not particularly true’ says Wilfred Fon Mbacham, a professor of public health biotechnology specialising in malaria.
‘We as scientists have to do much more to educate the public on what it is, and the benefits it has, so that we can calm their fears’.
‘I have prayed and waited all my life for this vaccine’ he continued.
Many Cameroonians are overjoyed at the news, and have vocalised their decision to vaccinate their own children.
‘I decided to vaccinate my child to avoid malaria. It’s a bad thing and when it affects my child, they can easily die,’ one mother told the BBC on Monday, when the new vaccine was launched.
According to WHO, Cameroon records around 6 million malaria cases annually. Six-month-old children in 42 districts with the greatest rates of morbidity and mortality will receive four doses until the age of two.
It is crucial to recognise that vaccines, including the malaria vaccine in Cameroon, undergo extensive testing and scrutiny before being approved for public use.
This rigorous scientific process ensures that vaccines are safe and effective, and any potential side effects are thoroughly evaluated.
Public health campaigns must work to bridge the gap in understanding between the scientific community and the general public, fostering trust and dispelling fears. This is not the sole responsibility of countries like Cameroon, where new medication is being rolled out.
It’s vital that the international medical community works to combat vaccine hesitancy and supports non-Western countries who are tirelessly working to make scientific breakthroughs a reality.