If you could go to your doctor and receive a vaccine that has been demonstrated through scientific studies to safely prevent a common type of cancer, would you get it?
I imagine if the overwhelming consensus of the scientific and medical community supported such a safe and preventative practice, the answer would be: “Yes. Yes I would.”
I am not talking about the human papillomavirus vaccine (HPV), even though it fits nicely with the question and answer above. (Why some parents continue to resist giving this vaccine that is safe and highly effective in preventing cancer to their tween and teen girls and boys continues to be a mystery to me.)
Acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) is the most common cancer in childhood, accounting for roughly one-quarter (25%) of all cancers in children under the age of 15. The disease begins abruptly and progresses rapidly, resulting in the massive proliferation of lymphocytes (a type of white blood cell) in the bone marrow and bloodstream which crowds out other essential blood cells like red blood cells, platelets, and other infection-fighting white blood cells. A child with ALL quickly becomes anemic and loses the ability to stop bleeding from minor trauma and fight infections. Cure rates exceed 90%, though treatment requires pretty drastic and invasive actions, including infusions of chemotherapeutic medications which can be toxic.
What if you could give your child a vaccine that would significantly lessen their chances of getting ALL? Well, you can! (If you’ve been making sure your child is up to date on vaccines, you already have!) A new study from the University of California San Francisco tells us how the Hib (Haemophilus influenza type B) vaccine does it. Juliana Bunim explains:
Though the cancer protection offered by the Hib vaccine has been well established in epidemiological studies, it is not well-known among the public at large, and the mechanism underlying this effect has been poorly understood. Now, in work to be reported on May 18 in Nature Immunology, an international team led by UCSF researchers has shown that recurrent Hib infections can put certain immune-system genes into overdrive, converting “pre-leukemia” blood cells – which are present in a surprisingly large number of newborns – into full-blown cancer.
“These experiments help explain why the incidence of leukemia has been dramatically reduced since the advent of regular vaccinations during infancy,” said Markus Müschen, MD, PhD, professor of laboratory medicine at UCSF and senior author of the study. “Hib and other childhood infections can cause recurrent and vehement immune responses, which we have found could lead to leukemia, but infants that have received vaccines are largely protected and acquire long-term immunity through very mild immune reactions.”
Hib vaccine by itself doesn’t prevent ALL. Recurrent infections caused by the Hib bacteria — ear and sinus infections, meningitis, skin and soft tissue infections (cellulitis), and more — dramatically disrupt a child’s immune system to the point of allowing cancer to develop.
Last week we discovered that infection with the measles virus causes “immune amnesia” which severely disrupts a child’s immune system for more than two years after getting measles and leads to sickness and even death to other common infectious diseases. Now it appears that Hib infections cause equally severe damage to a child’s immune system.
If you could give your child a safe and effective vaccine to prevent (often very serious) infections with Haemophilus influenza type B, thereby preventing the most common childhood cancer, would you do it?
Yes! Yes, of course you would!
Hib vaccine is routinely given as a 4-dose series to infants at 2, 4, and 6 months of age, with a booster dose at 15 months of age. Today, most pediatricians give Hib in combination with other vaccines. For example, the Pentacel vaccine contains DTap (diphtheria, tetanus, acellular pertussis), IPV (polio), and Hib.
More on the “Great Achievement” that is Hib vaccine here.