Vaccinology at needle edge of science

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(Image: Supplied)
(Image: Supplied)

Vaccinology has repeatedly held the future health of humanity in its hands. The specialist branch of medicine has historically been called on to save lives through the clinical formulation of a vaccine for diseases such as polio, measles and tuberculosis, and there are a multitude of other conditions that have seen an impactful response from the scientific community.

VIDA in the Faculty of Health Sciences at Wits University works intensively in the field and is poised to contribute at a time when a vaccine for the novel SARS-COV-2 virus is sought. Academics and postgraduates at the University have previously focused on the epidemiology and clinical development of lifesaving vaccines against pneumonia and diarrhoeal disease.

Many of the Wits heroes who wear lab coats have informed the World Health Organization (WHO) on recommendations that include the use of the lifesaving pneumococcal conjugate vaccine, rotavirus vaccine, and influenza vaccination for pregnant women.

One impactful project undertaken to date was VIDA’s clinical development of a vaccine to safeguard pregnant women against stillbirth and infant death. The body of work resulted in the world’s first test of a maternal mutli-valent Group B Streptococcus (GBS) vaccine, which if 80% effective and reached 90% of women, could potentially prevent 231,000 infant and maternal GBS cases.

GBS is carried by up to a third of pregnant women (usually with no symptoms) but it is their babies that are more vulnerable to the infection, as their immature immune systems cannot fight the multiplying bacteria.

If untreated, GBS can cause serious infections, such as meningitis and septicaemia in young infants, and could also cause stillbirths. Babies surviving this infection, can develop permanent problems including hearing or vision loss, or cerebral palsy. GBS also accounts for more than the combined neonatal deaths from tetanus, pertussis [whooping cough] and respiratory syncytial virus, for which maternal vaccines are already in use or further advanced in development.

The clinical development of a multi-valent GBS vaccine, currently underway at VIDA, is especially important as the highest incidence of invasive GBS in young infants globally has been reported in South Africa for the past 20 years.

As we continue to look to vaccinology to play its part at this critical time in medical and scientific work, let us remain hopeful, as there are experienced minds at work to enable us to secure future healthcare solutions. In this regard Professor Madhi’s research unit is preparing to launch the first COVID-19 vaccine studies in Africa shortly.

Professor Shabir Ahmed Madhi is the Director of the Medical Research Council Vaccines and Infectious Diseases Analytical Research Unit (VIDA) and Department of Science and Technology/National Research Foundation Research Chair in Vaccine Preventable Diseases at the University of the Witwatersrand.

Listen to the Wits Impacts For Good podcast on 702 with Professor Madhi here>

This post and content is sponsored, written and provided by University of the Witwatersrand.

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