A Vaccine Hero

Oct. 11, 2013

By Medical Discovery News

Despite the value of their work, scientists’ accomplishments don’t make them rich, and their talents generally don’t make them famous. For example, ever hear of Maurice R. Hilleman? Probably not, but most people are familiar with the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine he invented.

Hilleman may have saved more lives than any other scientist in the 20th century – he created or contributed to the development of more than 25 vaccines! Vaccines are designed to safely stimulate the immune system to develop resistance to diseases caused by viruses and bacteria.

About .1-.2 percent of children with measles, a highly contagious respiratory infection, die and an estimated 15-30 percent suffer complications like pneumonia. Hundreds of children died from measles every year even though the Food and Drug Administration had approved a measles vaccine in 1963. So Hilleman and a pediatrician named Joseph Stokes worked to minimize the significant side effects of the measles vaccine, which included fever and rash. They developed a scheme where children were injected with the vaccine in one arm and gamma globulin in the other. Gamma globulins are proteins extracted from blood that will temporarily stimulate the immune system. He eventually produced a much safer strain of measles virus called Moraten that is still used in today’s vaccines. But Hilleman did not stop there.

Like measles, mumps is also a viral infection, but it causes swelling of the parotid glands, the two largest salivary glands located in each cheek over the jaw and in front of the ears. Complications are not rare and include meningitis. Before the vaccine, mumps was one of the leading causes of childhood deafness. Mumps has also been reported to induce miscarriages in pregnant women. Hilleman started developing the mumps vaccine when his own daughter, Jeryl Lynn, developed mumps at age five. He isolated the virus from her, and named the vaccine strain derived from that virus after her.

Around 1963 there was a rubella outbreak in Europe. Another contagious viral infection, rubella is a usually mild disease that causes fever and rash in children and young adults, although it is less infectious and severe than measles. But rubella can cause birth defects if acquired by a pregnant woman. Up to 90 percent of infants born to mothers who had rubella during the first 11 weeks of pregnancy developed congenital rubella syndrome. This can cause growth retardation, cataracts, deafness, congenital heart defects, defects in other organs, and mental retardation. The highest risk to the fetus is during the first trimester, but exposure later in pregnancy also is dangerous. From 1963 to 1965, 11,000 babies died and another 20,000 developed birth defects due to rubella. Hilleman was responsible for refining the rubella vaccine and making it safe. At his request, an improved live rubella vaccine superseded his own. 

These three vaccines were combined to create the familiar MMR vaccine in 1971, which now has an added varicella vaccine to protect against chickenpox. Vaccination remains the most effective way to prevent diseases and their potentially serious effects.

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