Written by By Lola Ogunnaike, CNN
For almost a century, the most widely used polio vaccines have had a disastrous side effect.
In the 1940s, researchers developed a vaccine that was highly effective in preventing the crippling and life-altering effects of polio, but when it was administered, the body stopped producing the protein that was the vaccine’s main ingredient.
As a result, about one in 500 children that received the vaccine passed on the human immunodeficiency virus, commonly known as HIV, a disease that can wreak havoc in the young.
The recent Lancet study, which revealed the much-anticipated results, put the onus on the vaccines manufacturers. “The new findings clearly show that the vaccine manufacturer not only needs to change the composition of the vaccine but also change the doses given to children,” said senior author Ashutosh Saxena, professor of pediatrics at Columbia University Medical Center.
“The study confirms that the vaccine did not protect children against HIV from three to four decades after its introduction, even though its predecessors demonstrated safe protection. It clearly shows that if the vaccine was not a safe vaccine, neither should it be used.
“Manufacturers must come up with an HIV vaccine or risk being prosecuted for negligence and medical malpractice, which are both criminal offenses in the United States.”
The vaccine was the first to show safety among children.
With no vaccine available that could be effective at treating HIV, the study tested the efficacy of different vaccines — which are heavily regulated — as treatment options.
The study, published in the journal The Lancet, showed that, of 14,249 children aged 1 to 17, no one was immune to HIV after receiving a five-fold dose of the oral polio vaccine — compared with the risk of passing on the virus even after an oral dose of the vaccine.
But among a comparison group of 57 children who had received a three-fold dose of the polio vaccine, three children became immune to HIV after six months, and 15 children had immunity after eight months.
What is going on?
Saxena and his team of researchers hypothesized that each injection is absorbed by the body via the intestine and bloodstream, and is, in effect, injected into the brain and other parts of the body.
So researchers simulated the actions of the vaccine in the brain by exposing children to radiation, and found that the injected polio vaccine by itself failed to act as a booster.
Instead, the researchers reported that the injected polio vaccine only worked as a booster for another vaccine, which they tested called GlaxoSmithKline’s Synagis.
The GlaxoSmithKline vaccine activates viral infection among the immune system and, within about a year of the oral polio vaccine being introduced, eliminates the viruses from the body.
Following their natural infection, the immune system begins to mount an immune response, and GlaxoSmithKline’s vaccine essentially provides the same immune response.
The researchers concluded that there was no difference in the levels of T-cell antibodies and CD4+ cells between the two vaccines.
Health officials warn about false reassurance
U.S. federal health officials have published their own findings in The Lancet, agreeing with the results.
The fact that the two vaccines do not act as separate boosters but as a complement is particularly problematic for HIV, said The CDC’s Dr. Mike Gravitz.
“We are very concerned that they have implications for the prevention of HIV,” he said. “Combined with the fact that a single shot of the MMR vaccine has proved to be less protective than some of its predecessors for more than 50 years, this further has us concerned.”
Gravitz and his colleagues worked with researchers at the Massachusetts General Hospital HIV Treatment and Prevention Center and the Columbia University Medical Center to produce the report.
“We did not completely disagree,” he said of the findings. “But we do believe that more time is needed.”
The results also need to be replicated, Gravitz said.
“If these results are duplicated, then the findings have major implications for public health and the delivery of HIV prevention in the developing world,” he said.
He added that there is a high prevalence of HIV in many places with a poor infrastructure, but that the quality of service may be in conflict with what the vaccine manufacturers would want to deliver.
“And in some ways, we are still not aware of what many of these vaccines can do.”