Vaccinology at needle edge of science to protect pregnant women

Meet the Wits professor pioneering the vaccine to prevent stillbirths among pregnant women

19 June 2020 - 16:31
Professor Shabir Madhi.
Image: Supplied/Wits Professor Shabir Madhi.

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 effective response from the scientific community. 

The Vaccines and Infectious Diseases Analytical Unit (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, or Covid-19, is being sought. 

As director of the Medical Research Council Vida, and department of science & technology and National Research Foundation research chair in vaccine-preventable diseases at Wits University, Prof Shabir Ahmed Madhi focuses on addressing the leading infectious disease causes of morbidity and mortality including vaccine-preventable disease, HIV and tuberculosis.

Academics and postgraduates at the university have previously focused on the epidemiology and clinical development of life-saving vaccines against pneumonia and diarrheal disease. 

Many of the Wits heroes who wear lab coats have made recommendations to the World Health Organisation on the use of the life-saving pneumococcal conjugate vaccine, rotavirus vaccine, and influenza vaccine for pregnant women.

Pioneered by Madhi, Vida’s clinical development of a vaccine to safeguard pregnant women against stillbirth and infant death resulted in the world’s first test of a maternal multi-valent Group B Streptococcus (GBS) vaccine. If it’s 80% effective and reaches 90% of women, it 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). It’s the babies they carry who 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 can 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. Maternal vaccines are already in use or further advanced in development. 

The clinical development of a multi-valent GBS vaccine, now under way at Vida, is especially important as the highest incidence of invasive GBS in young infants globally has been reported in SA 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 health care solutions. In this regard Madhi’s research unit is preparing to launch the first Covid-19 vaccine studies in Africa soon.  

Listen to the Wits Impacts for Good podcast on 702 with professor Shabir Ahmed Madhi here.  

This article was paid for by Wits University.