Health Bombs

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
2 January, 2018
Editorial: 163
Fecha de publicación original: 13 abril, 1999

The killer disease of today is not cured by tomorrow’s remedy

The latest African upheavals of the malaria vaccine have passed as surreptitiously through the press in the West as a mosquito bite at sunset. At the most important meeting of malaria experts this century, held in Durban less than a month ago, the team from the Hospital Clinic in Barcelona presented the results of their latest clinical trials of the vaccine developed by Colombian doctor Manuel Patarroyo on new born babies in Tanzania. Having passed all previous tests over the last 13 years, Spf66 was unable to overcome this last decisive hurdle. Africa, particularly sub-Saharan Africa, has been left to face one the most merciless scourges to decimate its population without a vaccine. Every year, the fever produced by the parasite hospitalises 500 million people all over the world. Depending on the rainy seasons, between one and three million people die annually, the vast majority of them babies. And almost 85% of the victims live in sub-Saharan Africa. There are no rapid deployments for them to alleviate their suffering. Apart from hunger, poverty and war, the twenty first century is being ushered in with the worst of all possible news for them: there will be no malaria vaccine for at least one or two decades more. Not only because Patarroyo’s vaccine has failed, but also because that is what we, the rich countries, have decided. And this will almost certainly be the case unless we change our perception of things, of rich and poor, of the real and the possible.

Patarroyo’s vaccine has shown that it reduces clinical cases of malaria by 30% in African children between the ages of one and five years old. If it were a vaccine against AIDS, no western government with these results in hand would dream of disqualifying it to sit back and wait for better times. But malaria is not AIDS. The former mainly affects the less fortunate. The latter does too, but it affects the most opulent sectors of the planet as well. Consequently, there is a powerful lobby operating for AIDS which would never leave a vaccine with meagre results –30% protection — on the shelf, when it opens a door which up until now no-one has even managed to peep through. Patarroyo’s vaccine is, indeed, the first in the history of malaria to work, to protect against a parasite and, in addition, to do this through chemical synthesis and not through biological means.

But that is not enough. Despite present poverty levels with millions of people suffering from –and dying of– malaria, the vaccine must be effective even if only by 30%, in new born babies. For, it is only in this age group that the WHO has managed to develop an infrastructure called the Global Programme of Vaccination (GPV) for administering a vaccination package, all in one go, to the least developed countries in the world: tuberculosis, diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough, polio and measles. At the suggestion of getting a mass vaccination scheme under way for the protection of “older age groups” – one to five-year-olds – albeit with just a 30% efficacy (saving approximately 300,000 lives a year), the WHO and donor countries’ immediate response is that there are not sufficient resources. Meanwhile, trials began in south-east Asia three weeks ago for a vaccine against AIDS in humans, a vaccine which has been tested far less and is less efficient in laboratories than that of Patarroyo, but is backed by powerful US biotechnology companies and the US government itself.

I know this sounds demagogic but it is also pornographic: just an infinitesimal part of what NATO is investing in its bombardment of Yugoslavia, not to mention the military budgets of the four or five big arms manufacturers, would be enough to establish a network of research and health centres all over Africa from top to bottom guaranteeing the vaccination of that sector of the population predisposed to protection by Spf66 (or any other more effective vaccine that may follow). We know that this won’t happen. Amongst other things, because malaria, despite its attractive biblical connotations and the occasional tourist affected, is not an information “commodity” for info-affluent countries. Quite the opposite is true in 80% of the planet. Its population needs to generate its own information systems about infectious diseases, find a balance between therapeutic and preventive measures, generate resources for both and find a way of connecting with Western science that goes beyond the evangelical-missionary duality. And, this will depend a great deal on the opportunities they have for developing their own communications systems in order to globalise malaria newswise. Something like what Milosevic, Solana, the Israelis and Palestinians, or Monica Lewinsky, have done so effectively.

Translation: Bridget King.