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The Many Faces of Autoimmunity

Story Highlights
  • The tendency toward developing autoimmune disorders seems to run in families.
  • It is one of several environmental changes that has paralleled the rise in incidence of autoimmune diseases.
  • Evidence points to a causal relationship between several vaccines and specific autoimmune disorders.

Normally, the body’s natural immune system protects it against harmful outside substances called antigens, which could be a bacteria, virus, toxin, or a chemical or environmental irritant. An allergic reaction occurs when that protective action extends to a substance that is not ordinarily harmful, and an autoimmune reaction occurs when that same overprotective behavior turns on the body itself and reacts against its own cells.1

About 80 different autoimmune disorders have been identified so far, with another 40 diseases said to have some autoimmune component. The tendency toward developing autoimmune disorders seems to run in families, is much more common in women than men, may affect almost any organ system in the body and is definitely on the increase. Health authorities have not yet isolated a “smoking gun” in terms of a direct cause of autoimmunity, but several possible triggers have been identified, among them, genetics and environmental factors including vaccines.2

According to Virginia Ladd, President and Executive Director of the American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association (AARDA), “With the rapid increase in autoimmune diseases, it clearly suggests that environmental factors are at play due to the significant increase in these diseases. Genes do not change in such a short period of time.”3

Expressions of Autoimmunity

Some of the more common autoimmune disorders, and the main organ systems they affect, include4 :

• Rheumatoid arthritis (joints and surrounding tissues)
• Systemic lupus erythematous (skin, joints, kidneys, brain)
• Multiple sclerosis (brain and spinal cord)
• Celiac sprue (reaction to gluten) (lining of the small intestine)
• Pernicious anemia (red blood cells)
• Vitiligo (skin)
• Scleroderma (skin, blood vessels, muscles, and internal organs)
• Psoriasis (skin)
• Inflammatory bowel disease (colon and small intestine)
• Hashimoto’s disease (thyroid gland)
• Addison’s disease (adrenal gland)
• Graves’ disease (thyroid gland)
• Reactive arthritis (joints, urethra, eyes, skin and mucus membranes)
• Sjögren’s syndrome (glands that produce tears and saliva; may affect kidneys and lungs)
• Type 1 diabetes (insulin-producing glands in pancreas)

Award-winning science journalist DJ Nakazawa explains that it can be hard to tease out true increases in occurrence, as opposed to improvements in diagnosis and management, both of which have the effect of increasing the actual patient numbers, but he feels there is little doubt that the true incidence of autoimmune disorders has increased dramatically over the last 50 years. Taken as a group, they are now the second most common cause of chronic illness in the U.S.5

Given the rapid escalation of autoimmunity, it makes sense to look at other things that have occurred during that time frame that might shed some light on why our immune systems are increasingly unable to distinguish between “self” and “non-self.”

What Developments Could Have Impacted Natural Immunity?

Experts and laypeople alike agree that the chemical soup we are exposed to on a daily basis may be a factor in overwhelming our collective immune system. Fred Miller, director of the Environmental Autoimmunity Group at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, agrees that genetics are not changing fast enough to account for the rapid increase in autoimmune diseases but, he says, “Our environment is—we’ve got 80,000 chemicals approved for use in commerce, but we know very little about their immune effects.

Our lifestyles are also different than they were a few decades ago, and we’re eating more processed food.” As strides are made against cancer and heart disease, autoimmune diseases are taking their place among the most costly and debilitating groups of illnesses in the U.S., especially for women.6

The Vaccine Connection

The increase in vaccine exposure is another glaring environmental change that has paralleled the rise in incidence of autoimmune diseases. Interestingly, mouse studies have shown that, given enough antigen, mice will ultimately develop an autoimmune disorder, due, say the authors, to “the inevitable consequence of over-stimulating the host’s immune ‘system’ by repeated immunization with antigen, to the levels that surpass the system’s self-organized criticality.”7

The Institute of Medicine (IOM) has released a series of reports highlighting varying degrees of association between onset of autoimmune disorders and inoculation with some of the federally recommended vaccines. While the connection has been largely ignored in the scientific community, IOM committees have acknowledged a strong correlation between certain vaccines and specific autoimmune disorders. In other cases, they have shown an apparent association but stop short of reporting a definite causative effect.

After 18 months of review of credible scientific data, for example, the committee found that “the evidence established causality between diphtheria and tetanus toxoids and anaphylaxis, between measles vaccine and death from measles vaccine-strain viral infection, between measles-mumps-rubella vaccine and thrombocytopenia and anaphylaxis, between oral polio vaccine and poliomyelitis and death from polio vaccine-strain viral infection, and between hepatitis B vaccine and anaphylaxis.”

They further determined that “the evidence favored acceptance of a causal relation between diphtheria and tetanus (DT) toxoids and Guillain-Barré syndrome and brachial neuritis, between measles vaccine and anaphylaxis, between oral polio vaccine and Guillain-Barré syndrome, and between unconjugated Hib vaccine and susceptibility to Hib disease.” Their follow-up study in 1994 confirmed the causal links between the DT vaccine and Guillain-Barré syndrome and brachial neuritis, as well as establishing a causal link between oral polio vaccine and Guillain-Barré syndrome and between the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine and thrombocytopenia.8

In a 2011 update, the IOM reported causal links between the live varicella (chickenpox) vaccine and a number of adverse reactions linked to vaccine-mediated infection: widespread chickenpox rash, subsequent infection resulting in pneumonia, meningitis or hepatitis in immune-deficient patients, reactivation of vaccine-strain chickenpox with subsequent infection with meningitis or encephalitis (inflammation of the brain).9

The MMR vaccine was linked to “measles inclusion body encephalitis,” a rare condition that can affect those with a compromised immune system, and with anaphylaxis; varicella zoster, influenza, hepatitis B, meningococcal, and tetanus-containing vaccines also were linked to anaphylaxis. Suggestive evidence was said to point to a causal relationship between HPV vaccine and anaphylaxis and to a link between arthralgia in children and adult women following MMR vaccination, though the data were not definitive.

The update echoed the IOM’s earlier reports that vaccines can and do cause brain and immune system dysfunction, and acknowledged that further study is needed before the science behind vaccine adverse reactions is fully understood. Importantly, the report also pointed out the importance of each person’s unique immune system in determining the risk for developing an adverse vaccine reaction.

The Mechanism Behind Vaccine-Mediated Autoimmune Disorder

Autoimmune reactions following vaccination may be caused by a process of “molecular mimicry,” meaning that a native cell structure may be similar enough to a vaccine molecule to activate an autoimmune process, or by “bystander activation,” which refers to a group of responses that involve over-activation of fighter T-cells and a resulting increase in immune system attacks on “self.”10 11

Many authors confidently associate Guillain-Barré syndrome with certaine influenza vaccines, thrombocytopenia with the MMR vaccine, and myopericarditis with the smallpox vaccine, but there is also general agreement that further study is needed to fully evaluate other suspected associations between vaccines and autoimmune disorders. Among the connections requiring further study are those connecting both the hepatitis B and measles vaccines with multiple sclerosis, Hemophilus influenzae type B (HiB) with diabetes, rubella, hepatitis B and paratyphoid vaccines with arthritis, and the intranasal influenza vaccine with Bell’s palsy.12 13

The 2011 IOM report concludes that, “there is much to learn about the human immune system, autoimmunity, and the effects of genetic variation, all of which may influence how people respond to vaccines.”14


1 NIH. Autoimmune Disorders. Medline Plus. May 29, 2011.
2 Jacob A. Gut Health and Autoimmune Disease—Research Suggests Digestive Abnormalities May Be the Underlying Cause. Today’s Dietitian. Feb. 2013.
3 Rattue G. Autoimmune Disease Rates Increasing. Medical News Today. Jun. 22, 2012.
4 Roddick J. Autoimmune Disease. Healthline. 2005–2014.
5 Nakazawa DJ. The Autoimmune Epidemic: Bodies Gone Haywire in a World Out of Balance. (Excerpt from the book. Touchstone/Simon & Schuster.  AlterNet. Mar. 18, 2008.
6 Schmidt CW.  Questions Persist: Environmental Factors in Autoimmune Disease. Environmental Health Perspectives. Jun. 2011.
7 Tsumiyama K et al. Self-Organized Criticality Theory of Autoimmunity. Public Library of Science. Plos.org. Dec. 31, 2009.
8 Stratten KR. Adverse Events Associated With Childhood Vaccines Other Than Pertussis and RubellaSummary of a Report From the Institute of Medicine. Adverse Events Associated With Childhood Vaccines Other Than Pertussis and RubellaSummary of a Report From the Institute of Medicine. JAMA. May 25, 1994.
9 Institutes of Medicine. Adverse Effects of Vaccines: Evidence and Causality. Aug. 2011.
10 Tishler M. and Shoenfeld Y. Vaccination May Be Associated With Autoimmune Diseases. Israel Medical Association Journal, IMAJ. July, 2004.
11 Sfriso P., Ghirardello A., et al. Infections and Autoimmunity: The Multifaceted Relationship. J Leukocyte Biol. Mar. 2010.
12 Tishler M. and Shoenfeld Y. Vaccination May Be Associated With Autoimmune Diseases. Israel Medical Association Journal, IMAJ. Jul. 2004.
13 Salemi S, D’Amelio R. Could Autoimmunity Be Caused by Vaccination? Int Rev Immunol. Jun. 2010.
14 Institutes of Medicine. Adverse Effects of Vaccines: Evidence and Causality. Aug. 2011.

One Response to The Many Faces of Autoimmunity

  1. CATRYNA Reply

    June 7, 2016 at 7:26 am

    My 6 younger siblings and I all have autoimmune disease. The one factor we all have in common is the oral Polio vaccine, to which I had a visible and physical reaction. Not so much my brothers and sister. Many have said autoimmune runs in families, so we probably inherited this from our parents. The problem with this statement is that we 6 siblings are a combination of 3 different mothers and two different fathers; being half as well as full siblings. So that throws the inherited statement out the window.

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