Having recently spent some time learning about influenza vaccines I had the idea of looking back at other vaccinations I have had. Quite a few of these were done for a trip to Cameroon. I have no way of finding out exactly what vaccinations I had as a child. The only two I can remember is that at school we were given the BCG vaccination against tuberculosis and the oral vaccine against polio. The latter disease was more than an abstraction for me because of my very first schoolteacher (when I was five and six). She had a serious physical handicap and we knew why – she had had polio. I do not expect that I had many other vaccinations since a number of the diseases which were common in children before vaccinations against them were common (and which are still common in developing countries) rolled through our school. There were times when more than half the class was off school. I had measles when I was four and so had got one disease behind me even before school. Remarkably I was not affected (at least on the symptomatic level) by any of the series which were caught by most of my schoolmates (chicken pox, German measles, mumps, whooping cough). In most cases I do not know if I completely avoided the disease or if I had a subclinical infection. I never bothered to have a test for antibodies so as to find out. There is one exception. I got chicken pox in my mid twenties and so that is one I definitely missed as a child.
Now I come to the vaccinations I had in later years. Here I have a certificate of vaccination which I could consult. I will start with hepatitis A and B since that involves some themes which I mentioned in a previous post on influenza vaccines. A point I want to make is that the swine flu vaccines about which there has been so much public discussion recently are not so different from lots of other vaccines, including ones which I have had without thinking about it. The vaccine I had is called Twinrix. The hepatitis A vaccine contains inactivated virus, aluminium hydroxide (alum) as an adjuvant and is produced in cell culture (MRC5 cells).These are cells which are not immortal but can survive for 50-100 generations in culture. The hepatitis B vaccine contains surface antigens and is produced in cells of the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae. It contains aluminium phosphate as an adjuvant. In the manufacturer’s description of the vaccine it is mentioned that it contains traces of thiomersal. This is the organic compound containing mercury which has been a subject of discussion in the context of influenza vaccines. I have no idea if the concentrations involved in the two cases are comparable. Another vaccine I had was a polio vaccine with inactivated virus. This is produced in cell culture using Vero cells. The vaccination against tetanus (tetanol) contains toxoid (a modified form of the toxin produced by the bacterium causing the disease) and an adjuvant containing aluminium. As far as I know I was not vaccinated against diphtheria as a child and the vaccination I got more recently is analogous to that against tetanus and is actually effective against both diseases. I have no particular information about the vaccination I had against typhoid fever. Finally, there was Stamaril against yellow fever. This contains attenuated live virus. Of all the vaccinations I have mentioned this is the only one where I can remember having had even minor side effects. In that case I had a light headache about seven or eight days after the injection. Since I almost never have headaches and this is a known side effect I presume there was a causal connection. It is natural with a live vaccine and shows adaptive immunity getting activated.
I recently discovered a blog called WeiterGen (in German) with a lot of valuable information relevant to the public discussion of the influenza vaccine in Germany and elsewhere.There is also information about a notorious skin cream whose claimed medicinal properties have been the subject of some very dubious reporting on German TV recently. In Germany if you have a television set you have to pay the considerable licence fees for the public TV service. A justification often given for this is that it is important that the public have a trustworthy source of objective information. After this skin cream business I will be a lot more sceptical about the information on public TV, expecially things concerned with medical themes.
On a more cheerful note, the blog I just quoted also has an interesting post about the bacterium Mycoplasma pneumoniae as a model organism for use in systems biology.