This October the World Health Organization has officially recommended the use of the RTS, S/AS01 Malaria vaccination for children (WHO). This vaccine has been in trial since 2019 and has had more than 2.3million doses administered in Ghana, Kenya, and Malawi.
Malaria is a deadly disease that has ravaged sub-Saharan Africa for several lifetimes- According to a Britannica article on Malaria, the malaria parasites themselves possibly started evolving 30 million years ago (Briticanna). A research paper published by BioMedCentral titled, Barriers to the effective treatment and prevention of Malaria in Africa: A systematic review of qualitative studies, found that there are 300-500 million cases of malaria in Africa each year (BMC). Malaria tragically causes around 1 million deaths in Africa each year, 90% of which are children who have not yet reached 5 years of age(BMC).
The vaccine developed by GlaxoSmithKline pharmaceuticals produced a 30% decrease in deaths caused by Malaria in the sample groups in which it was introduced (WHO). This is fantastic news and great progress in preventing deaths from this disease. However, an important question that should be asked is: Why now? With the nature of the Malaria disease, how is it only in 2021 that a vaccine has been approved? There are many who assert that at least part of the answer to this question is financial gain by . large pharmaceuticals.
An article published by Naturphilosophie tells the account of Congolese doctor, Jerome Munyangi who had begun his journey working on accessible malaria treatment after contracting Malaria himself and receiving no relief from the anti-malarial treatment available to him. His friend suggested drinking tea made by a plant called Artemisia and the results were extraordinary (Naturphilosphie). Dr. Muyangi claims “On the 3rd day, I felt much better. Headaches and fever had gone. At the end of the treatment, on the 7th day, I went to get some tests done in a laboratory. Everything was great. No more Plasmodium!”(Naturphilosphie). According to Dr.Munyangi these alleged results prompted him to start studying the plant himself. He said that while working on his masters degree in Paris he and his teacher were shocked by the results of the lab as the Artemisia was performing incredibly well. Most importantly, Dr. Munyangi claims that his research was promptly halted because the research lab he was working in had a financial lifeline that was dependent on pharmaceutical companies. Dr. Munyangi said that his artemisia samples, lab notebook, and funding were all promptly taken away from him(Naturphilosphie). Allegedly, the authorities in the lab were afraid that the discovery of the effectiveness in a tea that any African household could make would undermine the pharmaceutical profit that comes from Malaria medicines.
The Artemisia plant was actually introduced to the World Health Organization in the 90’s by scientists in China but it was rejected. Later on a pharmaceutical company agreed to help those scientists get the plant on the market but as Lutgen points out “…to launch on the market a cheap and accessible herb to every horticulturalist/farmer didn’t interest either party.”(Lutgen). The only form of the Artemisia plant that was eventually approved by the WHO was Artemisinin Combined Therapy(ACT) which is a highly common drug used to treat uncomplicated malaria. According to a report published by the Medicines for Malaria Venture Organization, “The scale-up of ACTs represented a major breakthrough in the global fight against malaria at the start of the 21st century… An estimated 409 million treatment courses were procured by countries—99% of them in Africa.”(mmv). The problem with ACT’s is that they are far too expensive for the average African household to afford. Tefo Phage’s in his article on the United Nations Africa Renewal page, Dying from lack of medicines, he says that “WHO notes that treating a child for malaria in Uganda with artemisinin combination therapy will cost a household the equivalent of 11 days’ income.”(un.org) This is probably the reason why Dr. Munyangi’s next scientific trials received even more pushback.
After Dr. Munyangi left Paris and with the help of Lucile Cornet-Vernet he continued his research. They launched a large study following WHO standards with funds from “…friends, foundations, [and] companies because they truly believed the plant is the answer to the evil scourge of malaria in Africa.” They collected data every day for four months comparing patients taking ACT’s and the other group into drinking the tea. Both groups showed good results but according to Dr. Muyangi “…the parasite can disappear in patients taking herbal tea, whereas patients with ACT treatment still had parasites in their blood, even though their conditions had improved.” The ACT was 80% effective while the tea was 97% effective with no side effects. Dr.Munyangi tried to hold a scientific conference to get his findings known, but he was banned from doing so from the doctor in charge of the area. Dr. Munyangi argues that the doctor in charge was afraid of the pharmaceutical companies withdrawing their support from the area. “After the results were published, we told patients that the herbal tea was more effective. And they too had observed this. So, patients stopped buying ACTs. We were starting to get in the way. I was contacted by a large pharmaceutical depot in Kindu [a city in the Democratic Republic of Congo]. They said: “We can’t sell ACTs anymore because of your study. You, Sir, are messing with our business!”
Even prior to Dr. Munyangi’s research, the WHO had created a report against the use of artemisinin tea or grounded powder as a treatment for Malaria. According to Lutgen, the report was seemingly littered with false claims about the tea. In this report WHO stated that the dose of Artemisinin in the tea was less than necessary to be cured. Pr. Pamela Weathers of the American University of Worcester claims that she found quite the opposite. According to Pr.Weather’s findings, the bioavailability in the tea is at least ten times superior to just artemisinin. The WHO also reported that the artemisinin in the leaves was not stable. However, Pr. Weather’s claims that laboratories have shown that the leaves when stored under the proper conditions can last from 3 to 10 years and stay stable. Another reason for opposition was the claim that artemisinin would allow some of the parasites to survive and then they would eventually become resistant.Pr.Weather alleges that it was actually shown that the use of the ground-up powder from Artemisia leaves actually lowered the number of resistances that some parasites had previously. She also touches on the fact that it was suggested that the plant could contain toxic substances leading the tea to be banned in Belgium in 1998. Pr. Weathers says that in reality, none of the labs found any toxic effects but instead found beneficial effects on renal and hepatic functions.
Although we cannot prove this beyond any doubt, the story of Dr. Munyangi is a compelling case which leads to suspecting that there has been opacity of the pharmaceuticals against the research of affordable treatment against malaria. It is morally wrong if, in fact, Malaria vaccine has been delayed to protect the financial interests of large pharmaceutical companies.
by Ayo Adeyemi, AFJN Student Intern