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Member Research and Reports

Member Research and Reports

BU: Resurgence of Whooping Cough May Owe to Vaccine’s Inability to Prevent Infections

The startling global resurgence of pertussis, or whooping cough, in recent years can largely be attributed to the immunological failures of acellular vaccines, Boston University School of Public Health (BUSPH) argue in a new journal article.

The article, published in F1000 Research, points to the differences in mucosal immunity between whole-cell pertussis (wP) vaccines and the newer acellular pertussis (aP) vaccines, first introduced in the 1990s, as playing a pivotal role in the resurgence of the disease.

“This disease is back because we didn’t really understand how our immune defenses against whooping cough worked, and did not understand how the vaccines needed to work to prevent it,” said Dr. Christopher J. Gill, associate professor of global health at BUSPH and lead author of the article. “Instead we layered assumptions upon assumptions, and now find ourselves in the uncomfortable position of admitting that we may made some crucial errors. This is definitely not where we thought we’d be in 2017.”

The researchers examined mathematical models of pertussis transmission, data derived from the aP and wP vaccines responses in animals, and recent insight into the immunology of pertussis and pertussis vaccines. They found that, contrary to existing assumptions, although both vaccines blocked symptomatic disease, wP vaccines blocked also infections in animals while aP vaccines did not. Other differences included wP vaccines’ ability to induce a stronger herd immunity and robust TH17 responses, which confer mucosal immunity, while aP vaccines only induced TH2 responses.

Experimental and immunologic data has shown that aP vaccines do not provide herd immunity, while mathematical models imply otherwise. The researchers proposed a hypothesis to reconcile the contradictory findings: Herd effects from aP vaccines may be the result of modifications in disease presentation that lead to reduced possibility of transmission rather than induced resistance to infection.

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