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Malaria vaccine may enable wider spread of Gospel

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HENRICO, Va. (BP) – A newly approved malaria vaccine for children may help Southern Baptists spread the Gospel in sub-Saharan Africa and other regions where the mosquito-borne infection is most active.

With the continued use of chemically treated nets to prevent the spread of the disease, the vaccine can be an added valuable tool in fighting malaria while spreading the Gospel, said Dean Miller, who coordinates the More Than Nets ministry partnership between the Baptist General Association of Virginia (BGAV) and the Ghana Baptist Convention. More than 7,000 people in Ghana have accepted Jesus since the partnership launched in 2013, BGAV has said.

“Once it is possible for the vaccine to be widely distributed, then I can foresee us being able to host clinics in these remote villages,” said Miller, BGAV mission development staff coordinator. “And these clinics will be used much like the distribution of nets as a catalyst for conversation and church planting.”

The International Mission Board (IMB) Medical Team also welcomed the vaccine.

“We believe that this vaccine for children, along with continued preventative measures such as bed nets, is a wonderful step in the fight against malaria in Africa and beyond,” a representative of the IMB Medical Team said. “Malaria is a constant threat to our missionaries on the field who serve where malaria is endemic. Malaria has been eradicated in many places around the world, and the IMB Medical Team believes this vaccine may be a step to helping eradicate malaria in Africa and other locations.”

The World Health Organization approved the vaccine Oct. 6 for children in sub-Saharan Africa and other vulnerable regions, based on the results of pilot vaccination programs that have served 800,000 children in Ghana, Malawi and Kenya since 2019. Africa suffered 94 percent of all malaria cases in 2019, WHO said.

“The WHO endorsement of this vaccine is the first step in a process that will hopefully lead to wide distribution in poor countries,” an IMB Medical Team spokesperson said. “It’s not yet available to our personnel, but we are excited about this next phase that should save many thousands of lives in Sub-Saharan Africa and, in the future, become even more widely available, potentially for use by our personnel serving in malaria-endemic areas.”

Miller hopes the vaccine will open doors to sharing the Gospel in Ghanaian villages, as have the bed nets.

“Providing the nets for each village is one of the main avenues that we have into these places. The Ghanaian church planters build relationships with the village chiefs and others, but the nets provide a great purpose and excitement for the village,” Miller said. “And then, receiving permission to share the Gospel and then to plant a church seems to come a little easier.”

IMB will continue to follow protocols already in place to protect missionaries and international workers.

Before being deployed to regions prone to malaria, IMB workers complete a safety class during field personnel orientation are given medicines and prescriptions in case other medicines are required during deployment. Workers are urged to take malaria prevention medications daily and to use other preventatives including bed nets and mosquito repellants, and wearing long sleeves and pants.

“As an organization, it is a priority to us that our missionaries are educated and have access to medication to prevent the malaria disease and the spread of malaria,” the medical team representative said.

The WHO counted 409,000 malaria deaths worldwide in 2019, a decrease of 2,000 deaths from the previous year. But 229 million people contracted the disease in 2019, the WHO’s latest data year. Africa suffered 94 percent of all malaria cases and deaths, WHO said.

Perhaps the last reported case of an IMB missionary dying of malaria on the field was in 2015, when 67-year-old Susan Sanson died while serving in Zomba, Malawi. Children under 5 years old are most vulnerable to the life-threatening disease caused by parasites transmitted through infected female Anopheles mosquitoes.

Miller sees the vaccine as a major development in preventing the disease.

“Several medicines have been in a trial phase for decades, so having one that finally makes it to implementation is great news,” Miller said. “The distribution of nets will not go away anytime soon. The efficacy rate for the vaccine is good but not great so the nets will still be needed to provide another layer of protection.”