NAIROBI (Reuters) – Kenya on Friday began adding a malaria vaccine to its routine immunization schedule for babies and toddlers, becoming the third African country to roll out the vaccine for a disease that threatens children across the continent.

Malaria, which kills one child globally every two minutes, is the top killer of children under five in the east African country. The vaccine – the world’s first against malaria – will be administered to children under two and could be crucial to efforts to combat the disease, health officials said.

Other measures, such as nets to protect people from the mosquitoes that carry the malaria parasite, have not proven adequate to halt transmission, the director general of Kenya’s health ministry, Wekesa Masasabi, told Reuters.

“We still have an incidence of 27% (malaria infection) for children under five,” Masasabi said before Friday’s launch of the vaccine in the western county of Homa Bay.

The Homa Bay programme is the government’s first step toward creating awareness of the new vaccine, he said.

The injectable vaccine, called RTS,S or Mosquirix, was developed by British drugmaker GlaxoSmithKline to protect children from the most deadly form of malaria in Africa.

In clinical trials it proved only partially effective and it needs to be given in a four-dose schedule, but it is the first regulator-approved vaccine against the disease.

It has already been deployed in pilot programmes in Ghana and Malawi.

Malaria infected about 219 million people in 2017 and killed around 435,000. The vast majority of malaria deaths are among babies and children in the poorest parts of Africa. Due to ongoing transmission, half the world’s population is still at risk of contracting the disease.

The World Health Organization’s regional director for Africa, Matshidiso Moeti, said the Kenyan, Ghanaian and Malawian pilots would provide key information and data for a future WHO policy on broader use of the vaccine in sub-Saharan Africa.

A recent surge in malaria cases and deaths in the region is threatening gains in the fight against the disease, she said, adding that the vaccine “has the potential to save tens of thousands of lives.”

Kenya plans to roll out RTS,S to eight of its 47 counties over the next two years, Masasabi said.

In a major report published last weekend, global health experts said malaria could be eradicated within a generation with the right tools, funding and political will.

Commissioned by The Lancet medical journal, the report contradicted the conclusions last month of a malaria review by the WHO. The experts urged the U.N. agency not to shy away from this “goal of epic proportions”.

(Reporting by Maggie Fick in Niarobi and Kate Kelland in London; Editing by Tom Hogue and Frances Kerry)

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