Kelly Chibale caught malaria repeatedly while growing up in slum poverty in Africa. Once, he spent days in the hospital, shivering, exhausted, and vomiting even though he had no appetite.
His family—along with most others in his community—struggled to pay for care when malaria struck. Just as worrisome, when the adults became sick, they were unable to do the daily work that kept the children fed and clothed.
Malaria is not a virus or a bacteria, but a parasite that is transferred through the spit of mosquitos. It thrives in warm, moist climates where mosquitos can live all year long, and in children whose immune systems aren’t yet developed enough to fight it off. In 2019, nearly 274,000 children under 5 died from malaria worldwide—about one every two minutes.
That number was almost certainly higher in 2020, as COVID-19 disrupted supply lines for medication and bed nets. In fact, the delayed malaria treatments will likely kill more sub-Saharan Africans than the coronavirus itself, the director of the World Health Organization’s malaria program estimated.
In 2019, nearly 274,000 children under 5 died from malaria worldwide—about one every two minutes. . . . Delayed malaria treatments will likely kill more sub-Saharan Africans than the coronavirus itself.
It’s not that scientists haven’t looked for a solution. The problem is, the malaria parasite is just one cell, and flexible. So far, it’s developed workarounds for every medicine thrown at it. (For example, chloroquine-resistant malaria parasites learned to spit out the chloroquine drug before it builds up enough to become toxic.)
So when the World Health Organization recently recommended the first malaria vaccine for children, Chibale was thrilled. These days, he is an organic chemistry professor, running Africa’s only integrated drug-research facility—the Holistic Drug Discovery and Development Center—out of the University of Cape Town. (You can read his remarkable story here.)
TGC asked him about the significance of the vaccine, the ways he sees parallels to sin in malaria, and the hope he has for the future.
Malaria is thousands of years old, and multiple medications have attempted to subdue it over the years. This new vaccine will only protect children, not adults. And it’s only about 40 percent effective. So why is it a big deal?
This is the first breakthrough of this nature in malaria in more than 100 years. Using bed nets, mosquito repellant, and clean water are all good interventions, along with other medical treatments. But prevention—through non-pharmaceutical interventions and something like a vaccine—is always better than a cure.
It’s true that it isn’t as effective as we’d like. But when more than 250,000 children are being killed annually, even a 40 percent effective rate is better than nothing. We have to be grateful for that. And we know this is just one weapon in the arsenal that is available.
The real importance of a breakthrough of this magnitude is that people begin to believe the problem is solvable. It’s like when someone breaks a world record in an athletic event, and then all sorts of people will break the same record because they know it’s possible. This is a historical feat in public health. As Christians, let’s focus on the blessings that give us encouragement and remember—hope never disappoints us (Rom. 5:5).
The real importance of a breakthrough of this magnitude is that people begin to believe the problem is solvable.
How do you see parallels to sin in malaria?
The parasite that causes malaria is very insidious and sophisticated—it’s one of the oldest killers of all time. It has evolved to basically avoid our immune system, coexist with it, or to manipulate it.
Here is what we have in common with the malaria parasite: It is made up of cells. I am also made up of cells. Cells are composed of machinery that exists to flourish, to multiply. God created them that way.
At a scientific, cellular level, the malaria parasite and humans are both organisms who want to live. So every time we make a medical advance, the parasite begins to figure out what we are trying to do. If you try to starve it, for example, it’ll try to figure out how to get food by stealing from you or making the human body make food for it. It’s us vs. them.
In malaria, we are battling how sin twists God’s good design. This is a battle, a war—just like in the spiritual realm.
In malaria, we are battling how sin twists God’s good design.
How is the development of a vaccine evidence of God’s mercy to people?
Science is a gift from God, out of his mercy for us. As a scientist, I am doing God’s work, attempting to alleviate human suffering in partnership with God. And other Christians cannot say that we don’t need the scientific part of the body of Christ. The finger cannot say it doesn’t need the nose (1 Cor. 12:12–27). The body functions because of every member.
Science functions because of discovery, which is finding what God has put out there. Even the act of discovering itself is from God, because he is the source of every good and perfect gift (James 1:17). There should be no room for arrogance or pride in science, because you did not give yourself intelligence or ideas. God did.
Scientific progress has benefits for all of society—it’s like the rain that falls on the just and the unjust (Matt. 5:45). When I see good news like this, I remember the Devil cannot give good news. The Devil is a thief who only comes to steal, kill, and destroy. Sickness and disease come from him. So this vaccine discovery is an act of God’s mercy.
Scientific progress has benefits for all of society—it’s like the rain that falls on the just and the unjust.
How does this vaccine give you hope?
Beyond the lives saved and suffering alleviated, I’m hopeful about the impact this could have on the economy. Sub-Saharan Africa is mostly rural in many countries, and people survive on subsistence farming. Neither they, nor those in urban areas with have formal employment, can work when suffering from malaria. When they can’t work because they get sick and don’t have medication, or when they die, the economic toll is incredible. It keeps their families, their communities, and their countries in unstable poverty.
This vaccine is for children, who are the most vulnerable. When they get malaria, they are more likely to become very sick or die. And because they are young, they can’t protect themselves by purchasing bed nets or accessing clean water. The adults in their lives have to do that for them, and sometimes they get distracted with the struggles of daily living.
This vaccine is not a big deal for people in the United States, where malaria has been eradicated. But for the forgotten children in the poorest spots of the world, it’s an act of God’s mercy. He is looking out for the poor and the marginalized.