Using an ensemble modeling approach, Thomas Smith and colleagues find that targeted mass vaccination with a pre-erythrocytic malaria vaccine RTS,S in low-transmission settings might have better health effects than vaccination through national EPI programs.
The RTS,S malaria vaccine may soon be licensed. Models of impact of such vaccines have mainly considered deployment via the World Health Organization's Expanded Programme on Immunization (EPI) in areas of stable endemic transmission of Plasmodium falciparum, and have been calibrated for such settings. Their applicability to low transmission settings is unclear. Evaluations of the efficiency of different deployment strategies in diverse settings should consider uncertainties in model structure.
Methods and Findings
An ensemble of 14 individual-based stochastic simulation models of P. falciparum dynamics, with differing assumptions about immune decay, transmission heterogeneity, and treatment access, was constructed. After fitting to an extensive library of field data, each model was used to predict the likely health benefits of RTS,S deployment, via EPI (with or without catch-up vaccinations), supplementary vaccination of school-age children, or mass vaccination every 5 y. Settings with seasonally varying transmission, with overall pre-intervention entomological inoculation rates (EIRs) of two, 11, and 20 infectious bites per person per annum, were considered. Predicted benefits of EPI vaccination programs over the simulated 14-y time horizon were dependent on duration of protection. Nevertheless, EPI strategies (with an initial catch-up phase) averted the most deaths per dose at the higher EIRs, although model uncertainty increased with EIR. At two infectious bites per person per annum, mass vaccination strategies substantially reduced transmission, leading to much greater health effects per dose, even at modest coverage.
In higher transmission settings, EPI strategies will be most efficient, but vaccination additional to the EPI in targeted low transmission settings, even at modest coverage, might be more efficient than national-level vaccination of infants. The feasibility and economics of mass vaccination, and the circumstances under which vaccination will avert epidemics, remain unclear. The approach of using an ensemble of models provides more secure conclusions than a single-model approach, and suggests greater confidence in predictions of health effects for lower transmission settings than for higher ones.
Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary
The World Health Organization estimates that there are over 200 million cases of malaria each year, and that more than three-quarters of a million people (mostly children living in sub-Saharan Africa) die as a result. Several Plasmodium parasites cause malaria, the most deadly being Plasmodium falciparum. Plasmodium parasites, which are transmitted to people through the bites of infected night-flying mosquitoes, cause recurring fever and can cause life-threatening organ damage. Malaria transmission can be prevented by using insecticides to control the mosquitoes that spread the parasite and by sleeping under insecticide-treated bed nets to avoid mosquito bites. Treatment with antimalarial drugs also reduces transmission. Together, these preventative measures have greatly reduced the global burden of malaria over recent years, but a malaria vaccine could be a valuable additional tool against the disease. At present there is no licensed malaria vaccine, but one promising vaccine—RTS,S—is currently undergoing phase III clinical trials (the last stage of testing before licensing) in infants and children in seven African countries.
Why Was This Study Done?
If the RTS,S vaccine fulfills its promise and is licensed, how should it be used to maximize its effect on the global malaria burden? Should it be given through the World Health Organization's Expanded Programme on Immunization (EPI), which aims to provide universal access to immunization against several infectious diseases during the first three months of life, for example, or through mass vaccination campaigns? Individual mathematical models have been used to investigate this type of question, but the predictions made by these models may be inaccurate because malaria immunity is poorly understood, because little is known about the levels of variability (heterogeneity) in host responses to malaria infection and in malaria transmission, and because it is unclear what the structure of models used to predict vaccine efficacy should be. In this study, the researchers use an “ensemble” approach to model the likely public health impact of the RTS,S malaria vaccine. That is, they simultaneously consider the effect of the vaccine in multiple models of P. falciparum dynamics. Ensemble modeling is widely used in weather forecasting and has been used to investigate several other infectious diseases.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers constructed an ensemble of 14 individual-based stochastic simulation models of P. falciparum dynamics that included different assumptions about immune decay, transmission heterogeneity, and access to treatment. Such models simulate the passage of thousands of hypothetical individuals through different stages of malaria infection; movement between stages occurs stochastically (by chance) at a probability based on field data. Each model was used to predict the health benefits over 14 years of RTS,S deployment through EPI (with and without catch-up vaccination for infants who were not immunized during their first three months of life), through EPI and supplementary vaccination of school children, and through mass vaccination campaigns every five years at malaria transmission levels of 2, 11, and 20 infectious bites per person per annum (low, medium, and high entomological inoculation rates [EIRs], respectively). The predicted benefits of EPI vaccination programs over the 14-year period were modest and similar over a wide range of settings. However, EPI with an initial catch-up phase averted the most deaths per vaccine dose at higher EIRs. At the lowest EIR, mass vaccination strategies substantially reduced transmission, leading to much greater health effects per dose than other strategies, even at modest coverage.
What Do These Findings Mean?
The ensemble approach taken here suggests that targeted mass vaccination with RTS,S in low transmission settings may have greater health benefits than vaccination through national EPI programs. Importantly, this computer-intensive approach, which used computers made available over the internet by volunteers, provides more secure predictions than can be obtained using single models. In addition, it suggests that predictions made about the health effects of RTS,S vaccination for low transmission settings are more likely to be accurate than those made for higher transmission settings. However, this study only reports the first stages of using ensemble modeling to predict the health effects of RTS,S vaccination. Future studies will need to combine the outputs of multiple models with economic analyses to provide a rational basis for the design of vaccine-containing malaria control and elimination programs.
Please access these websites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1001157.
Information is available from the World Health Organization on malaria and on malaria immunization; the 2010 World Malaria Report provides details on the current global malaria situation; WHO also provides information on its Expanded Programme on Immunization (EPI), and its Global Immunization Vision and Strategy (some information is available in several languages)
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provide information on malaria (in English and Spanish), including a selection of personal stories about malaria
Information is available from the Roll Back Malaria Partnership on the global control of malaria and on malaria in Africa
The latest results from the phase III trial of RTS,S are available on the website of the PATH Malaria Vaccine Initiative, a global program of the international nonprofit organization PATH that aims to accelerate the development of malaria vaccines and ensure their availability and accessibility in the developing world
Wikipedia has a page on ensemble forecasting (note: Wikipedia is a free online encyclopedia that anyone can edit; available in several languages)
OpenMalaria is the open source simulator of malaria epidemiology and control used in this study; BOINC is the open source software for volunteer computing and grid computing that was used to run the simulations
MedlinePlus provides links to additional information on malaria and on immunization (in English and Spanish)