Does Vaccination Prevent Cancer?

7 03 2011

The history of anxiety about possible negative effects of vaccines is long, tracing back at least as far as Benjamin Franklin. Countering these worries is the fact that vaccines are one of the greatest public health successes of our time, saving millions of lives worldwide.

Now we know that vaccine benefits may extend beyond prevention of the target childhood disease.

An already recognized extra benefit comes with the vaccines for varicella. A varicella vaccine not only can prevent chickenpox in young people, but may also stop the occurrence of shingles in older folks.

Shingles, a neurological attack by the chickenpox virus decades after an infection, can cause a rash that leaves behind chronic, unbearable pain. Vaccination in childhood may protect against shingles, and according to a new study from a Texas group, published in The Journal of Pediatrics, childhood vaccines may offer reduced odds of childhood cancer.

The researchers, going on hints from earlier studies, looked at vaccine rates in specific areas and compared those numbers to childhood cancer rates in the same region. While childhood cancers are rare, they are, of course, devastating. The most common cancers in children are leukemia and brain and spinal cord cancers. According to previous studies, some common childhood infections might increase a child’s risk of leukemia, while vaccinations might reduce that risk. It’s not a nutty idea that some infections—especially viral infections—might be associated with cancer. Indeed, a few viral infections have an established association, including human papillomavirus (HPV, associated with cervical and anal cancers), hepatitis B (associated with liver cancer), and Epstein-Barr (the “mono” virus, linked to a type of lymphoma).

The researchers looked at the 2800 cases of childhood cancer diagnosed in Texas from 1995 to 2006, focusing only on cases diagnosed in children two years or older. For every child diagnosed with cancer, the team identified four more children who had not had cancer, matched for age and sex. As a final step, they then mapped how many children from each group had been born in Texas counties with high vaccination rates.

Their results showed that where hepatitis B vaccination rates were high, odds of all childhood cancers fell by almost 20%. Where rates of inactivated polio virus, hepatitis B, or a specific mix of childhood vaccinations were high, odds of finding cases of a common childhood leukemia, acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), dropped by as much as 38%. The biggest dip in odds came with higher rates of Hib (Haemophilus influenzae type b) vaccine and ALL, with a 42% decrease in ALL odds where Hib vaccination rates were high.

It’s important to remember that the authors didn’t establish a cause–effect link here. This study is based on the numbers, and the take-home message here is a simple one. The authors put it best in their abstract: “Some common childhood vaccines appear to be protective against ALL at the population level.”


26 03 2009

When our son, Matthew, was born in 2003, my husband and I made a decision not to vaccinate him, although, Ashley, our oldest, was fully vaccinated and Stephen, our middle child, was partially vaccinated. 

We have friends who have children with autism and, at the time, there were a lot of stories in the media about the MMR vaccine controversy.  We searched but could find no proof that autism wasn’t caused from vaccinations. 

Based on what we’d read, we truly felt we made the best decision for our son at the time and that not vaccinating was safer than vaccinating.
In the first two years of Matthew’s life, he was healthy, with just a sore throat here and there.  We thought everything was going to be just fine and that we had made the right decision.  We felt we were home free.

Well, home free we weren’t after Matthew’s 3rd birthday.  Our lives were changed forever. On Saturday evening, April 22, 2006, Matthew began to labor in his breathing and had a high fever.  We took him to the local hospital, Forbes Regional of Monroeville, PA. 

The young emergency doctor gave him asthma treatments and something for his fever.  Two hours later, nothing had changed for Matthew.  My husband and I asked for a pediatric doctor and fortunately we got one who’d been practicing for some time.  He took one look at Matthew and asked me this question: Was your son vaccinated? 

The answer was a resounding NO! 

That was when my nightmare truly began.  The doctor told us that he believed our son had epiglottis caused by Hib infection, but that he hadn’t seen it since the 1980s, when the vaccine was first introduced.  He told us that Matthew’s airways were swelling, and if we didn’t do something quickly, he was going to die within minutes. 

Matthew in danger

Matthew in danger

I was holding Matthew in my arms at the time and was not able to cry, for fear of scaring him.  They brought the x-ray machine to the room to confirm that it was Hib and the Life Flight team was called in from Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. 

The team from Children’s was unable to fly in from Pittsburgh due to the weather and had to come in by ambulance. The operating room team came in from Forbes Regional.  Everything was in slow motion.  We were in a state of shock and all I could think about was to  do whatever it took to make sure Matthew lived. 

All the teams arrived and a tube was put down Matthew’s throat to clear his airways.  We then went to Children’s Hospital and spent six days in PICU.  Matthew had a full recovery and no brain damage.  A simple sentence that means everything to us.

Once Matthew was out of the hospital and doing well, we got him and his brother fully vaccinated.  We don’t know how Matthew was infected, but we do know that, even with so many people vaccinated, hib is still around. 

Matthew recovered

Matthew recovered

After we went through the life-threatening experience with Matthew, we decided that if we could help one family not go through what we went through, we would do it.

My husband and I have reached out to others, sharing our story with the hope that moms and dads will choose to vaccinate rather than risk disease.

I don’t want someone else to have to hold their child in their arms as the doctor is telling them, “Your child is going to die within minutes.”  No one thinks anything can happen to them, but Hib disease happened to us. We know it happened for a reason and want to make sure people are aware of the fact that diseases are still out there.  Infant immunization is crucial.

Matthew’s infection could have been prevented with a simple vaccination.