MMR: Triple-Jumping to Conclusions
25 January 2002
Private Eye Magazine

ANOTHER week, another scientific review of the triple vaccine MMR…and another set of headlines proclaiming "multi-jabs pose no risk to babies".

The paper, published in the US journal Pediatrics and reported here, made the extraordinary claim that a baby's immune system could safely cope with as many as 10,000 vaccines at any one time. The theory offered by Dr Paul Offit and others is that even before birth babies have the ability to respond to millions of antigens or "foreign" proteins which trigger the immune system.

They calculate that some vaccines contain as few as one antigen, but even if each vaccine contained 100 antigens, the very efficient human immune system even in a baby could respond to as many as 10,000 vaccines at one time.

The theory works if one is discussing vaccines such as diphtheria, tetanus and Hib, which all involve the introduction of parts of dead organisms into the child and do not suppress the immune system. But it becomes meaningless when discussing the combined measles, mumps and rubella jab because it contains three live viruses which, although greatly weakened, still replicate and attack body tissue.

Dr John B March, a scientist who develops animal vaccines, explains: "With the use of live viral vaccines, the number of antigens is neither relevant nor important: it is the way the viruses replicate in the host and the effects upon the immune system that are crucial. Many viruses (including MMR) alter the immune response, producing proteins that 'resemble' host proteins to turn sections of the immune response on and off. If they turn one part off, the host becomes more susceptible to another viral or bacterial infection."

So what happens if you introduce three live viruses together, all switching immune cells on and off? "Well there is a potential for problems," said Dr March. He knows because his trial work with animals allows him and his colleagues to study immune responses to vaccines for months if not years; taking blood samples at regular intervals to measure whether the immune system is suppressed or modified and for how long. They also do a detailed and long term clinical assessment of the animal.

This simply doesn't happen with human vaccines. It would be considered invasive to "bleed" children weekly for years. Instead blood is usually taken only on a single occasion, and the results of different children are pooled to give average results. So available data is extremely limited and the chances of picking up individual reactions small. "Immuno-suppression can easily be detected and monitored in an individual animal. With current human vaccine trials this would never be observed," said Dr March.

So animal vaccines are actually subjected to far more rigorous safety testing than human vaccines. But animal trials also raise another worrying question about the human triple jab: how effective is it? Human trials generally correlate "antibody" responses with protection - that is if the body produces antibodies (proteins) which bind to vaccine components, then it must be working and safe. Yet Dr March says antibody response is generally a poor measure of protection and no indicator at all of safety. "Particularly for viral diseases, the 'cellular' immune response is all important, and antibody levels and protection are totally unconnected."

Which brings us to the state of the research going on here and abroad involving the children who Dr Andrew Wakefield first recognised had both regressive autism and rare gut disease. As the Eye has already reported, many have been found to have the measles virus in their gut and bowel several years after vaccination. On the face of it, that would appear to place the pharmaceutical industry and the pro-MMR vaccine programme in some difficulty. Either the live measles vaccine virus is still infecting the child and suppressing the immune system or - and this is March's point about antibodies being no indicator of protection - the measles component of the vaccine did not work and the children caught wild measles.

Dr March believes a causal role for MMR in autism is as yet unproven, but the effects of the triple jab on the immune system do concern him. "It is statistically proven that autistic children exhibit dysfunctional immune systems. Why?" he asks. "Perhaps only 1 in 200 children may not be able to handle three live viruses and these are the ones who become autistic. But we simply do not know, because we have never done these studies and we have very little idea about what happens following vaccination.