Scientists and doctors from around the world Tuesday kick off a meeting here to discuss progress made in developing a vaccine against malaria, and the news is expected to be good.
"People are excited that we may finally have a vaccine that can be registered and in use in five years, and making a huge contribution to what has been an uphill battle for too long," said Gwynne Oosterbaan, vice president of international consultants Global Health Strategies.
"There's light at the end of the tunnel," she said
One of the stars at the meeting will be the RTS,S malaria vaccine, which has been developed by GlaxoSmithKline and the PATH Malaria Vaccine Initiative, with funding from the philanthropic foundation set up by Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates and his wife, Melinda.
RTS,S is in Phase III trials, which test a vaccine's safety and efficacy on a large scale, in seven African countries -- Burkina Faso, Gabon, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique and Tanzania. Enrollment is targeted to reach 16,000 children and infants.
Results of Phase II trials, which were announced in 2008, showed RTS,S was 53 percent effective against clinical falciparum malaria in young children, the most vulnerable to the mosquito-borne illness.
In infants, the vaccine was up to 65 percent effective.
If successful, the Phase III testing and licensing of the vaccine would make it a "first generation malaria vaccine that is at least 50 percent effective against severe disease and death, and that lasts more than one year," the Malaria Vaccine Initiative has said.
"This vaccine has been 25 years in the making and it's taken people from all walks of life to pull it together to make it happen," said Oosterbaan.
Among keynote speakers at the meeting in Washington, which follows up a conference on malaria vaccines held three years ago in London, will be Christian Ockenhouse and Thomas Ritchie, who will discuss initiatives by the US military in the fight against malaria, and GSK researcher Joe Cohen, one of the inventors of RTS,S.
More than a third of the world's population is at risk of contracting malaria, a disease that kills some 900,000 people each year. The falciparum strain of malaria is the most deadly form of the illness, which is caused by a parasite carried by mosquitoes.
According to the organizers of the Washington conference, some 200 people die of malaria every hour of every day every year, most of them children in Africa.
Malaria is one of the main obstacles to socio-economic development in Africa, and developing effective vaccines against the disease would have an enormous effect on reducing its negative impact, they said.