Can We Predict Bad Reactions To Flu Shots?

Researchers studying how we respond to vaccines have discovered a molecular signature that could help identify people who have a greater risk of suffering temporary but adverse reactions to immunizations. The findings are published in Nature Immunology this week.

The so-called swine flu is caused by H1N1, the influenza virus that circulated during the outbreak of 2009. It was the first major H1N1 outbreak in several decades, and that means people over 40 might still harbor swine flu-specific memory cells that could be reactivated.

To compare their responses to flu vaccines with those that arent heavily influenced by the recall responses of the immune system, Adrian Hayday of King’s College London and colleagues tracked 178 healthy people who were immunized with the Pandemrix H1N1 vaccine for swine flu between March 2010 and August 2011. This shot in particular contained an additional compound (called an adjuvant) thats designed to bolster helpful immune responses. Blood samples were taken before and after the vaccine was administered, and the volunteers self-reported the intensity of various wellness parameters including fever, muscle and joint aches, dizziness, diarrhea, swollen glands, and sleeplessness.

Within 24 hours, all of the participants had mounted immune responses. Compared to their pre-vaccination state, they showed major changes in the frequencies of white blood cells circulating in the blood, as well as changes in the genes that these cells express. Additionally, the team found significant differences in this early immune response between volunteers younger than 35 and volunteers 35 or older.

Furthermore, in the 20 percent of participants who reported (temporary) side effects of the vaccine, the team detected a pre-vaccination molecular signature thats correlated to increased frequencies of immature B cells in the blood. White blood cells called B cells produce antibodies, and transitional B cells (the ones identified in this study) have previously been linked with autoimmune diseases, specifically those that impact joints or connective tissues.

Auto-antibodies, the team found, were present in the blood samples from these (otherwise healthy) people before they got their shot suggesting that some pre-existing condition factored into the adverse events they experienced as a result.

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Headway Made Toward HIV Vaccine

The Human Immunodeficiency Virus is notorious for the rapid rate of mutation which makes it a constantly moving target for those trying to develop a vaccine. In a massive collaboration funded by the National Institute of Health, scientists have established a timeline of HIV mutations that cause the immune system to begin antibody production. This gives the researchers a new avenue to explore toward creating an HIV vaccine. The results were published in Nature.

Since HIV first emerged in the Congo, over 75 million people have been infected worldwide. Of those, almost 36 million have died from complications. Those who are currently infected with the virus can receive treatment and live a long, healthy life; a sharp contrast to the imminent death sentence an HIV/AIDS diagnosis was at the beginning of the epidemic. However, treatments are still incredibly expensive and must be strictly maintained over the course of a lifetime. Immunologists continue to work toward a vaccine that would prevent anyone from acquiring the virus in the first place.

Though HIV frequently mutates, the researchers found that a binding site, named V1V2, has remained fairly conserved and is susceptible to antibodies created by the immune system. Antibodies that are able to neutralize certain strains of the virus occur in about one-fifth of all HIV-infected individuals. The ability to replicate certain forms of those antibodies are believed to be the key to creating an HIV vaccine.

The team was able to identify twelve somatically-related antibodies (VRC26) that had been created by the immune system in blood samples from an HIV+ volunteer only known CAP256. The breakthrough came when they discovered that even after the virus mutated and changed a few times, the antibodies were still able to neutralize a wide range of strains. 

Studies like this have been attempted before, but scientists did not have access to the earliest forms of the virus that caused the immune system to begin antibody production. With that factor as an unknown, vaccine discovery could not occur. For patient CAP256, blood samples had been taken weekly for over 3 years, beginning just four weeks after the infection. This allowed scientists to monitor the progression of the virus and the antibodies and study their co-evolution. 

It took over two and a half years for the antibodies to mature enough to be able to neutralize isolates of the virus. The researchers believe they now have a solid timeline to work from and can begin to develop artificial copies of the antibodies from different milestones during its progression. 

Though the antibodies do not neutralize all strains of HIV, it does affect many of them. The researchers are currently trying to use those antibodies to develop a vaccine. After the vaccine has been tested for safety and efficacy with animal models, they will seek trials using uninfected humans.

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You Need To Know The Truth About These Vaccine Myths

It really is a matter of life and death.

Vaccines save millions of lives every year.

Vaccines save millions of lives every year .

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But outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases still happen all over the world.

But outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases still happen all over the world.

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Last July an 8-month-long measles outbreak in Swansea, Wales, finally came to an end. But not before one person had died and 88 been forced to visit hospital after contracting the disease. Some of those who became ill during the epidemic had not received the MMR vaccine as children thanks to Andrew Wakefield’s bogus vaccine scare in 1998.

These diseases still kill children.

There are outbreaks still going on all over the world that could have been prevented with vaccines.

Five children died in one outbreak of whooping cough in the UK in 2012. By the end of the year, 14 babies under 3 months old had died.

This year in California, three babies have already died of whooping cough.

These are not isolated incidents.

There are many reasons why parents choose not to vaccinate. But that decision is often based on misinformation.

Here are some common myths and why they aren’t true.

1. “There’s a link between the MMR vaccine and autism.”

"There's a link between the MMR vaccine and autism."

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Sash Alexander Photography

The Cochrane Collaboration reviewed all the available evidence on the MMR vaccine. They found no link between the vaccine and autism.

Here’s their conclusion: “We could assess no significant association between MMR immunisation and the following conditions: autism, asthma, leukaemia, hay fever, type 1 diabetes, gait disturbance, Crohn’s disease, demyelinating diseases, or bacterial or viral infections.”

The myth was started by Andrew Wakefield in 1998.

The myth was started by Andrew Wakefield in 1998.

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Darryl Cunningham /

Wakefield published a paper in The Lancet (since retracted) claiming that there was a link between autism in 12 children and the MMR vaccine.

He later commented at a press conference that individual vaccines for measles, mumps, and rubella were safer than the combined jab, though this claim was not backed up by the research.

Nine months before Wakefield made these comments, he’d filed a patent for a single measles vaccine.

Subsequent peer-reviewed studies have not shown any link between MMR and autism.

Wakefield was struck off the medical register in 2010.

Wakefield was struck off the medical register in 2010.

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Darryl Cunningham /

He was found guilty of serious professional misconduct. The General Medical Council said Wakefield had “abused his position of trust” and “brought the medical profession into disrepute”.

During the experiments that led to Wakefield’s retracted Lancet paper, children were subjected to colonoscopies, blood tests, and barium meals. None of these experiments were approved by the hospital’s ethics committee.

But him being struck off hasn’t stopped people believing Wakefield’s dangerous claims.

2. “There are dangerous levels of mercury in vaccines.”

"There are dangerous levels of mercury in vaccines."

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Antonio Gravante

There is a mercury-containing compound in some vaccines called thiomersal (“thimerosal” in the US) that has been used as a preservative in drugs since the 1930s.

However, the World Health Organisation (WHO) says: “There is no evidence to suggest that the amount of thiomersal used in vaccines poses a health risk.”

Moreover, thiomersal is no longer used in most vaccines. It’s been removed from all vaccines routinely given to children under 6 in the US (apart from one flu vaccine) and the UK.

3. “Cases of vaccinated children getting ill show vaccines don’t work.”

"Cases of vaccinated children getting ill show vaccines don't work."

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CandyBox Images

Vaccines don’t have a 100% success rate, which means sometimes you can still get ill even if you have had a vaccine.

This makes it even more important that as many people as possible are vaccinated.

4. “Whether I choose to vaccinate my child makes no difference to anyone else.”

"Whether I choose to vaccinate my child makes no difference to anyone else."

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Vaccines protect people around you too, including children too young to be vaccinated themselves. It’s an effect called herd immunity. Without it, diseases can spread much quicker.

And it’s no good just keeping kids who are ill at home. Many diseases are contagious before symptoms start to show.

5. “The amount of aluminium in vaccines is harmful.”

"The amount of aluminium in vaccines is harmful."

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An aluminium-based compound is added to many vaccines to strengthen the immune response created by the vaccine.

Vaccines temporarily increase the amount of aluminium in an infant’s body, but this falls back to normal in a few days.

Aluminium is also found naturally in breast milk. Two studies have shown that the combined aluminium intake from diet and vaccines is not enough to cause infants any harm.

“Although aluminium can be toxic in large quantities, no harmful effects are seen with the level of aluminium used in such small amounts in vaccines,” says the NHS.

6. “We can beat diseases with hygiene and sanitation alone.”

"We can beat diseases with hygiene and sanitation alone."

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Hand-washing, good hygiene, and clean water can help protect people from infectious diseases. But some diseases will spread no matter how clean we are.

According to the WHO: “If people are not vaccinated, diseases that have become uncommon, such as polio and measles, will quickly reappear.”

7. “There are side effects that doctors don’t tell you about.”

"There are side effects that doctors don't tell you about."

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Some side effects that can occur when a child is vaccinated. But most of the side effects are mild (and temporary) compared to the illnesses that they prevent. Any significant reactions are rare and are always investigated.

You’re much more likely to be seriously injured by a vaccine-preventable disease than by a vaccine. For example, polio can cause paralysis and measles can cause encephalitis (an inflammation of the brain) and blindness.

8. “Too many vaccines overwhelm a baby’s immune system.”

"Too many vaccines overwhelm a baby's immune system."

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Kids are exposed to several hundred foreign substances that trigger an immune response every day. According to the WHO: “A child is exposed to far more antigens from a common cold or sore throat than they are from vaccines.”

In fact, taking several vaccines together can help, as it means fewer doctor’s trips and a greater likelihood of finishing the course.

9. “Measles is not dangerous enough to bother with a vaccine.”

"Measles is not dangerous enough to bother with a vaccine."

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Yes it is. Measles is one of the leading causes of death among young children. In 2012, there were 122,000 measles deaths worldwide (that’s 14 an hour).

10. “Flu isn’t dangerous.”

"Flu isn't dangerous."

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Most people recover from fever and other flu symptoms within a week, but those at higher risk – including children younger than 2 – can be affected more seriously.

Seasonal flu epidemics are estimated to result in about 3 to 5 million cases of severe illness, and about 250,000 to 500,000 deaths per year.

11. “Whooping cough isn’t dangerous.”

"Whooping cough isn't dangerous."

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Each year, there are an estimated 16 million cases of whooping cough worldwide, and about 195,000 child deaths from the disease.

12. “It’s better for kids to be exposed to infection naturally.”

"It's better for kids to be exposed to infection naturally."

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Vaccines produce an immune response similar to that produced by a natural infection. But, crucially, they do not cause the disease or put the vaccinated person at risk of the disease’s potential complications.

13. “Vaccines do more harm than good.”

"Vaccines do more harm than good."

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Leon Farrant /

They really, really don’t. If there’s any doubt in your mind about whether vaccines work, take a closer look at this chart.

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