5-11 December 2014 #735

The vaccine man

Maurice Hilleman, the man who swore like a sailor and discovered the MMR vaccine.
Dhanvantari by Buddha Basnyat, MD

The success of vaccination campaigns in Nepal is well known. But, what many may not be aware of is how some of these vaccines were discovered.

American microbiologist Maurice Hilleman, best known for his discovery of the MMR (mumps, measles, rubella) vaccine may not fit most people’s description of a genius. Hilleman was known to swear like a sailor and said his main goal in life was to become a store manager for American chain JC Penney.

But, he is one of the most important albeit unsung microbiologists of our time, credited with discovering over 25 vaccines.

He was inspired to find a cure for mumps after his daughter became sick with the disease in 1961. By using mumps virus isolated from his daughter, Hilleman developed the mumps vaccine which has saved millions of lives.

A word on how vaccines are developed. Vaccines are made from the disease causing organism which prompts the immune system to develop antibodies against the disease. The virus is first isolated and kept alive in the laboratory.

Then it is weakened so that when the vaccine is injected, it doesn’t cause a severe illness. This is achieved by passing it over and over through a series of cells like chicken embryo so that the weakened self of the organism will stimulate the immune system without harming the host. It usually takes seven days for the vaccine to produce antibodies after administration.

During the spring of 1963, Hilleman designed a technique to administer another vaccine (measles) without causing common side effects like fever and rash. That same year, an epidemic of rubella broke out in Europe and spread around the globe. Hilleman worked to produce a vaccine against this dreaded scourge, especially to avoid this disease in pregnant women. (The vaccine is contraindicated in pregnancy.)

The initial vaccine, as Maurice recalled, was very “toxic” but he worked tirelessly to make the vaccine more acceptable until it was approved by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration in the US) in 1969.

In 1971 Maurice put together his three efficient vaccines (measles, mumps and rubella) replacing the series of six shots with just two, thus tremendously improving patient compliance. Again in 1978, the prolific nature of this scientist led to an addition of a newer and better rubella vaccine to the MMR combination.

Towards the end of his life, Hilleman suffered a huge blow when the British medical journal The Lancet, published an article questioning MMR’s side effects.

The lead author in the article, Dr Andrew Wakefield, wrote that MMR caused an epidemic of autism. Maurice began receiving hate mails and death threats after the article was published.

However, multiple independent studies later challenged the findings of Dr Wakefield and The Lancet had to officially retract the infamous article in 2010. Unfortunately, the news came too late for Maurice who died of stomach cancer in 2005 and for European mothers whose children suffered from measles and some tragically died after declining to administer MMR vaccine to avoid autism.

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