Scientists already know a great deal about the remarkable ways in which vaccines save lives and prevent suffering. But even they can sometimes be surprised by the benefits of immunization.
Take the measles vaccine, for example. (We wish more people would, to prevent the kinds of outbreaks that sent dozens of children in Minneapolis to the hospital recently.) According to a 2013 article in New Scientist, the added benefits of the vaccine can be mighty.
“In Africa, for instance, studies have shown that measles vaccine cuts deaths from all other infections combined by a third,” the publication reported, “mainly by protecting against pneumonia, sepsis and diarrhea.”
Some vaccines appear to offer some protection against eczema and asthma as well, the New Scientist reported. The flu vaccine is associated with a lower risk of heart attack and stroke, according to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Assn. Internal Medicine. And a synthetic version of the polio vaccine shows promise as a treatment for glioblastoma, the brain cancer that afflicts Arizona Sen. John McCain.
So perhaps no one should be hugely surprised by the newest example: Scientists in New Zealand have found that young adults vaccinated with a serogroup B meningococcal vaccine were significantly less likely to develop gonorrhea. Their findings were published earlier this month in the British medical journal Lancet.
As reported by CNN, the history of the findings begins in the early 2000s, when New Zealand was struck by an epidemic of meningococcal B disease. That led to a push to develop a vaccine against the specific bacterium causing the disease; it worked by attacking the “sac on the outer membrane of the bacteria,” CNN reported.
Health officials then conducted a vaccine campaign targeting the meningococcal B disease, a bacterial form of the disease that inflames the lining surrounding the brain and spinal cord. About 15 percent of those afflicted die, and many of those who survive suffer amputations, brain damage, hearing loss or other complications, according to the CDC.
Scientists had noticed that after the vaccination campaign in New Zealand, and similar efforts in Cuba and Norway, rates of gonorrhea had declined. So the New Zealand researchers went back to the nation’s vaccine registry to look at those who had been immunized during that period. Sure enough, according to a report on the research by Science News, they found that people who had been vaccinated were almost one-third less likely to have contracted gonorrhea.
This doesn’t mean that the current vaccine against serotype B meningococcal disease should or would be used as a preventive for gonorrhea. It’s not known precisely what component of the vaccine was effective, Science News reported. (The exact vaccine used is no longer available, though one of the two vaccines available in the United States uses the same mechanism.)
“We need to understand what was magical about this vaccine,” study co-author Helen Petousis-Harris told the publication.
The hope is that once they have determined that—and examined other meningitis vaccines to see if they have the same effect—scientists might be able to develop a vaccine that specifically targets gonorrhea. The bacteria that cause gonorrhea and meningococcal B disease share 80 - 90 percent of their DNA, Science News reported.
According to the World Health Organization, about 78 million people are infected with gonorrhea worldwide each year. In the United States alone, the number is more than 800,000, according to the CDC, and is especially common among young people 15 – 24 years old. And just a couple of days before the New Zealand study was published, WHO reported that antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea is on the rise and that new drugs were needed to combat it.
“The bacteria that cause gonorrhea are particularly smart,” said Dr. Teodora Wi, a medical officer in human reproduction at WHO. “Every time we use a new class of antibiotics to treat the infection, the bacteria evolve to resist them.”
A vaccine, if it can be developed, would give public health officials an entirely new way to combat the disease.
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