Advances against three major world diseases

There was amazing news last week in the fight against Ebola: A human trial of a vaccine in Guinea had 100-percent effectiveness against the dreaded virus.

Funded by the World Health Organization and other groups, it started in April and ended on July 20, relying on participants who consented to be part of the trial, NPR reported. experts are heartened by the new results — but they also warn that as testing expands, the effectiveness rate of the vaccine will likely fall below 100 percent.

The vaccine works similar to the way the smallpox vaccine works, Forbes reports: by injecting a live virus that is similar to the lethal one. This lets the body learn how to make antigens to kill the virus if it invades again. Smallpox, thanks to a decades-long vaccination campaign around the world, has been eradicated.

In the case of smallpox, the live cowpox virus is injected, which is similar enough for the body to learn how to kill it but does not cause illness in humans. For Ebola, the virus is Vesicular stomatitis virus, or VSV, from the rabies family. VSV only causes a very mild illness, and the vaccine version is “attenuated” — genetically engineered to make it less virulent. Researchers then replaced one of its genes with an Ebola gene, essentially making the benign VSV virus “look like” Ebola. Once injected, the body learns how to make antigens to kill the Ebola virus and can overwhelm it quickly if it ever appears again.

Though more trials still need to be conducted, the news of a working vaccine is a major breakthrough for a virus that has killed more than 10,000 people.

Polio is on the run

And there was yet more big vaccination news: Nigeria has gone one full year without a reported case of polio, leading officials to believe they may soon be able to declare the African continent polio-free.

The last case recorded in Africa occurred in Somalia on Aug. 11, 2014.

But other places are not doing as well: “The achievement turns up the pressure on Pakistan, where most of the world’s few remaining polio cases occur, to follow suit. Pakistan has reported 28 polio cases since Jan. 1 this year,” The Guardian reports. “Nigeria still has two more years before it, along with the whole of Africa, can be certified officially polio-free by the WHO, but health experts say its achievement bodes well for wiping the disease out. Global health experts still hold out hope for an end to polio worldwide by 2018.”

Those efforts are often hampered by local leaders — and sometimes even Catholic bishops — urging bans against vaccines. Most recently, Catholic bishops in Kenya called for a ban on the polio vaccine until it can be proven safe.

Ahead of the campaign’s launch, the bishops questioned the safety of the vaccines, saying the manufacturer failed to provide requested information and the government disregarded the bishops’ request for tests.

Their concerns heightened after a recent unrelated incident in which about 30 children who received an injection of an anti-malarial drug in a dispensary in western Kenya appeared to be paralyzed. The drug, believed to be quinine for advanced cases, was found to contain the pain drug paracetamol, according to the bishops. Paracetamol is also known as acetaminophen.

Last year, Kenya’s bishops called for a ban on the tetanus vaccine, saying it was birth control in disguise.

A way to swat Malaria?

And our final entry in what has somehow become an all-vaccine blog is news that the world’s first malaria vaccine has won approval from European regulators who say it should be given to all African children at risk of the mosquito-borne parasite.

How big a deal is this? Malaria killed more than a half-million people in 2013. More than 80 percent of Malaria deaths are in children under the age of 5.

While the vaccine has not been as effective in the youngest children in the trials, officials still urge rolling it out, saying that in addition to other measures such as insecticides and mosquito netting, significant numbers of lives will be saved.

Remember, links, tips and accounts of the response to any crisis anywhere in the world are always welcome at dstockman@ncronline.org.

[Dan Stockman is national correspondent for Global Sisters Report. Follow him on Twitter @DanStockman or on Facebook.]

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