Measles – The Party’s over

30. April 2009

Undergone childhood diseases are better than vaccinations and their potential complications – this is what critics of vaccination say. The hygiene hypothesis suggests some dirt against allergies. But not everything that puts a child on the sickbed automatically helps the immune system.

“Today, the vaccination recommendations of STIKO (the permanent vaccination commission) provides Germany with one of the most comprehensive and best programs worldwide for prevention of serious infectious diseases and their complications.” Fred Zepp, chairman of the German association of children- and youth medicine, chose those clear words to welcome the participants of the first national vaccination conference in Mainz/Germany a few days ago. But just how much sense do vaccinations make? Is that early prick in a child’s life and a high degree of hygiene in the household better than the acquaintance with a little dirt and going through childhood diseases?

Cow barn bacterium protects against allergy

If you grow up on a farm you have better chances to live without allergies as a grown-up. At a press conference of the Deutsches Grünes Kreuz (German Green Cross) a month ago in Berlin, Erika von Mutius of the University of Munich confirmed the according study once again. She also named two so far unknown main actors in the farm environment which – at least for lab animals – work like guardian angels against allergies: Acinetobacter lwoffii and Lactococcus lactis. “Whatever doesn’t kill us makes us even stronger”. The pioneers voting for free development of childhood diseases want to prove with according research results: infections help not only against overreactions against dust and pollen but also against serious autoimmune diseases such as diabetes or in the battle against cancer. But it seems like it won’t be that simple after all because how would you explain the results of several Europeans studies then? With about 25,000 Danish mother-child pairs, Christine Benn and her colleagues showed that with every infection within the first six months of life the risk for an atopic eczema increased. Stephen Bremner at the London University investigated 30 childhood infections. None of the infections considered appear to have an important role in hay fever prevention. In a study including some 1500 school children, Swiss epidemiologists finally discovered that those children who had suffered from mumps, measles or rubella (MMR) were more likely to get pollen allergy or asthma in later years compared to those children who were vaccinated against all three diseases. On the other hand, epidemiologists found lesser allergies in Waldorf kindergartens and –schools despite the fact that those children undergo the STIKO vaccination program less frequently.

Similar: Yellow fever – and melanoma antigens

The situation of tumor risks versus childhood infections does not appear to be a whole lot clearer. A Canadian study shows that a MMR-vaccination (measles, mumps, rubella) reduces the risk of a pediatric leukemia for about 50 percent. Whoever gets to know other human micro florae at an early age benefits also regarding the cancer risk. According to British results every early social activity of mother and child is of advantage against infantile tumor defense, but particularly staying in a daycare center which also cuts the risk of an early ALL by half. While leukemia can be fought in children comparatively easy and effectively, melanomae are a different story. A BCG-vaccination against tuberculosis in an early age also protects the adult from this aggressive tumor. And it is similar with the formerly prevalent variola vaccination. In studies with about 28,000 participants in the region of Veneto a team of scientists from Italy, Germany, England and the Netherlands discovered that the yellow fever-vaccination efficiently protects from the black skin cancer – even ten years later. During those studies the correlation between vaccination and protection has been revealed after all: Because the BCG vaccine has, just like the yellow fever, a similar amino-acid structure like an antigen (HERV-K-MEL) which occurs in 95 percent of all malign melanocytes. Thus the training with the vaccines is of advantage for the immune system as well in its fight against own degenerated body cells.

“Molecular Mimikry”, the resemblance between microbe-antigens and body-own structures, probably is one of the bases for an early training of the immune system. Thus it can fight later against attacks from outside and inside – to avoid overbalance. Virus infections of children frequently come along with a transient autoimmune reaction. In the process, regulatory T-cells appear to come into the game as well which can calm down the immune system in cases of allergies but also of attacks against the body-own antigens. The immunologists Joachim Schultze, Bonn/Germany, confirmed that during an interview with the “Apotheken-Umschau” (special newspaper published through German pharmacies): “If the immune system reacts wrong, the balance between regulating cells and those cells actually performing the immune attack is obviously missing.”

“Old friends” provide protection

And what happened to the hygiene hypothesis? In cooperation with Brazilian scientists, Yehuda Shoenfeld has connected infections in relationship with 16 different autoimmune diseases. He writes in his review: “It seems that in the development of this healthy carriage state, the infection or colonization in early stages of ontogenesis with key microorganisms, also called ‘old friends’ (lactobacilli, bifidobacteria among others), are important for the healthy living and for the protection from infectious and autoimmune syndromes.” What also could explain the results which connect few clinically relevant infections with a life without allergy since Stephen Bremner’s statistics relate only to infections documented in medical records.

The key to our immune balance seems to be the early acquaintance with the world outside and with germs in our environment. But that does not require “measles parties” or live events of childhood diseases instead of vaccinations. Mel Greaves at the Institute of Cancer Research in London/UK even believes in an according programming in the course of evolution. The repertoire of immune cells expects an early infection shortly after birth. Without this colonization there would be no effective defense against future threats.

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