Published October 19, 2016
Americans have never been big fans of flu shots. During the 2009 “swine flu” influenza A pandemic, only about 40...
— William Wilberforce
Bobby Hunter was 10 years old when his mother noticed her usually energetic boy was struggling to stay awake and he looked exhausted all the time. Then he began collapsing. Eventually Bobby was diagnosed with narcolepsy, a lifelong incurable condition where victims suddenly drop into deep dream sleep, sometimes a dozen times a day or more. It can be accompanied by bizarre and terrifying symptoms: waking hallucinations of demons, insomnia, sleep paralysis and a sudden loss of muscle control or cataplexy often triggered by strong emotions.
Bobby now has to be accompanied everywhere he goes in case he falls unconscious; he’ll never bathe or drive or cross a street alone. But his case is particularly cruel. Now, he is a child who is afraid to smile or laugh because it might trigger an attack.
Bobby’s mother Amanda is adamant he first became ill after he received the nasal flu vaccine at his school. But could such a small thing cause such a devastating disorder?
In April, at the 10th Autoimmunity Congress in Leipzig, Germany a leading pharmaceutical researcher presented his international team’s findings suggesting that vaccination could indeed have the “unexpected” effect of inducing crippling narcolepsy, an autoimmune disease.
Sohail Ahmed, lead author of a ground breaking paper published last summer in Science Translational Medicine explained how the now-retracted Pandemrix vaccine was implicated in a narcolepsy epidemic of more than 1,300 children in several European countries and spates of cases linked to other vaccines for the 2009 swine flu pandemic that never materialized.
It turns out, part of the influenza nucleoprotein in the swine flu vaccine looked (molecularly) just like a receptor for a neurotransmitter in the brain called orexin that regulates the sleep/wake cycle, explained, Ahmed former global head of clinical sciences at Novartis and later GlaxoSmithKline who is currently with Roche Pharmaceuticals.
When the vaccine was injected with an adjuvant to ramp up the immune response, the immune system went into overdrive. Something—maybe chemical ingredients in the vaccine, maybe inflammation—breached the blood brain barrier and the immune system targeting the vaccine virus also locked in on the receptors in the brain sleep centre. Narcoleptic patients’ own immune system then destroyed a hub of 70,000 or so orexin-producing cells in their brains before their hosts started knocking out. The autoimmune reaction can’t be turned off because the immune system is programmed to relentlessly attack anything it perceives as a foreign invader. It’s a case of mistaken identity and in immunology it’s called a “cross-reaction.”
But could other vaccines still in circulation that contain the H1N1 virus trigger narcolepsy too? Could the same mechanism cause kids like Bobby Hunter to get narcolepsy from the nasal flu vaccine?
Both Ahmed and immunologist Maria Teresa Arango at Leipzig confirmed that it could indeed. Bobby probably carries the HLA-DQB1*0602 genetic marker that leaves him at a higher risk of getting narcolepsy. But so does 20% of the US population. For pharmaceutical industry dependents like Ahmed, so long as cases like Bobby’s are not epidemic as they were with Pandemrix, they are collateral damage the pharmaceutical industry is willing continue to keep flu vaccines rolling.
But what if other vaccine proteins are acting in more unexpected ways, contributing to other autoimmune diseases?
Arango said such cross-reactivity could be the underlying mechanism for widely varied and unexpected documented vaccine adverse autoimmune events affecting other parts of the brain or body. She pointed to the work of Dr. Darja Kanduc.
Kanduc is a biochemist at the University of Bari in Italy who presented her findings in Leipzig at a one-day symposium on vaccine safety sponsored by the Children’s Medical Safety Research Institute. Bari has been looking for molecular similarities between microbial and human proteins and found that a massive, unexpected “peptide sharing” exists between human proteins and microbe proteins.
Where overlap (“peptide sharing”) occurs between a foreign protein and human protein, they have a same identical amino acid sequence (for example, SLVDTYR). An immune response launched against SLVDTYR might hit A (the microbial protein) and also B (the human protein). In immunology terms, this is a cross-reaction between A and B—in the same way Ahmed’s team illustrated vaccine-induced narcolepsy.
Normally such cross-reactions do not occur, explains Kanduc. “In fact, the human immune system has been ‘educated’ to ignore foreign proteins and avoid cross-reactions in order not to harm the similar human ‘self’ proteins.” In immunology, this is called immunotolerance. Our immune system does not press the panic button and launch an attack on every foreign viral protein it encounters.
Our natural immunotolerance has proved a big problem for vaccine manufacturers over the years. Simply injecting a viral or bacterial particle into our bodies does not trigger the immune storm they want. Our bodies aren’t designed to encounter pathogens via intramuscular injection, after all. Our immune system refuses to attack the injected pathogen since that would mean also attacking the look-alike human proteins. It would rather not go to war than risk the home casualties.
Imagine the immune system as a border guard. If a guard at the Canada-US border pulled every vehicle that drove up to his checkpoint aside, emptied the suitcases, called in the sniffer dogs, strip-searched the occupants and called for the SWAT team, things would get ugly pretty fast. Most of the time, border guards are alert but passive. Our immune system is the same way with foreign proteins.
So vaccine manufacturers pepper vaccines with adjuvants—crude extracts of mycobacteria, toxins such as mercury, aluminum salts, or mineral oils to force the reluctant immune system to go into attack mode—from passive border guard to hypervigilant nutter pulling a gun on a granny. Celebrated Yale immunologist Charles Janeway called this “immunologist’s dirty little secret” underlying vaccination.
“Adjuvants expand, potentiate, and increase immune responses,” explains Kanduc. “Such hyperactivation has a price: the loss of specificity. The hyper-stimulated immune system does not discriminate any more between foreign proteins and self-proteins… Adjuvants render the immune system blind. Human proteins that share peptide sequences will be attacked.”
Kanduc likens immunotolerance to a protective wall. “The dam is demolished by the adjuvants and the cross-reactivity flood can crush and alter human proteins.” This might also cause numerous cross-reactions, manifested as a wide variety of autoimmune attacks.
Kanduc looked for peptide sharing between a single influenza A H5N1 protein and human proteins. She found that the viral protein shares 70 peptides with the human host—proteins involved in basic cell functions including proliferation, neurodevelopment, and differentiation.
Among the human proteins that could be on the firing range: reelin, a protein involved in neuron layering, neurexins, proteins that connect neurons, syndrome 10 protein for Bardet-Biedl syndrome, a transcription factor for Williams Syndrome (a rare genetic neurodevelopmental disorder), a protein associated with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and so on.
When these human proteins are altered, as for example by genetic mutations, neurological disorders such as epilepsy, obesity, dystonia, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome and demyelinating diseases like multiple sclerosis occur, says Kanduc.
“The same spectrum of diseases might occur if these human proteins are attacked and altered by cross-reactions following an expanded and indiscriminate immune response induced by an adjuvant vaccine,” she adds.
With such “massive overlap” of proteins, the potential for vaccines to induce all sorts of autoimmune diseases is possible; it explains why such diverse autoimmune phenomena have been documented in the medical literature with respect to vaccination, from neurological disorders to skin afflictions to impaired fertility.
“The type of autoimmune phenomenon and disease that is eventually established will depend on the molecules and organs attacked,” explains Kanduc. “For example, attacks against myelin may evoke demyelinating diseases [such as multiple sclerosis] whereas immune reactions against proteins involved in behaviour and /or cognition may cause autism and behaviour disorders.”
Such autoimmunity may be the mechanism underlying cases of premature menopause and infertility in adolescent girls following injection with the vaccine against HPV, described in Leipzig by an Australian GP. Deirdre Little, a general practitioner in South Bellingen, first published a case study of her 16-year-old patient who developed premature ovarian insufficiency (POI) following HPV vaccination. Since then Little has encountered six more post-HPV cases of sterility in adolescents in her practice—though primary ovarian insufficiency is almost unheard of—normally affecting one in 100,000 girls under age 20.
Little and Harvey Ward, the Australian obstetrician gynaecologist who co-authored her studies, highlighted their concerns that the HPV vaccine’s impact on fertility has not been researched.
What’s more, she said: “The ‘saline’ placebo control for this vaccine target group was not saline.” Little discovered that even product information was misleading on this point and failed to mention that the “placebo” for the HPV contained the toxic metal aluminium and polysorbate 80—an ingredient which has exhibited delayed ovarian toxicity to rat ovaries at all injected doses tested over a tenfold range.
Polysorbate 80 has been compared to diethylstilbestrol (DES), a cancer drug given to women until 1971 when it was shown to induce cancer. Later researchers discovered children who were exposed to DES in utero also had high risk of cervical cancer and infertility.
“The definition of a safe drug is when the children of the people who have taken it can reproduce healthy children,” said Ward. It will be a long time yet before the HPV vaccine can be declared safe.
Contraceptive researchers have been trying to make a birth control vaccine for decades—primarily by vaccinating against female hormones such as follicle stimulating hormone and human chorionic gonadotropin. They’ve been hampered by their inability to rein in the triggered immune system; besides FSH and HcG, it attacks look-alike sequences on hormones such as thyroid and leutenizing hormone.
“Our goal with our vaccine was to develop autoimmunity,” Bonnie Dunbar, a 20-year veteran vaccine researcher, told the 4th International Public Conference on Vaccination in 2010, according to a report from the Population Research Institute. Dunbar tried to train rabbits’ immune systems to attack proteins on their ova using pig proteins in her vaccine to “trick the rabbit into inducing antibodies against its own self proteins.”
Instead, she inadvertently launched a full-scale immune assault that completely destroyed their ovaries. “Unfortunately, we weren’t just looking at preventing fertilization now,” said Dunbar, “we generated a complete autoimmune disease, which is also known as premature ovarian failure.”
Is it possible that components of HPV vaccines share sequences with components of the reproductive system?
In 2007, cattle farmers in Europe began reporting a bizarre new disease among calves. Sometimes the new-born animals were just found dead, but others, usually less than a month old, would develop nosebleeds, black tarry stools and high fevers. Sometimes ear tagging, or the slightest scratch or knock would lead to uncontrollable bleeding. Something appeared to be destroying platelets in the blood of these animals, and post mortems revealed massive internal bleeding and almost completely decimated bone marrow.
By 2009, the disease was in the U.K., and while it usually only affected one or two animals on a given farm, sometimes it affected as many as 10 percent of new-borns and it was almost always lethal. Eventually it would kill at least 4,500 calves. Vets suspected many more cases were going unreported and there was no sign of the mystery abating. Veterinary agencies were growing alarmed. The first epidemiology reports in 2009 confirmed rumours: the new disease called Bleeding Calf Syndrome, or bovine neonatal pancytopenia in academic circles, had something to do with Pfizer’s new PregSure vaccine against bovine viral diarrhea (BVD). In 2010, the vaccine was pulled from the market.
BVD spreads easily among intensively farmed animals (not so much grass-fed), and it causes diarrhea, lowers milk production and can cause stillbirths. A calf infected in utero that survives can be persistently infected throughout its lifetime and keep the disease circulating. The PregSure vaccine was given to pregnant cows to avoid BVD transmission to developing calves.
But a host of studies conducted by European agriculture ministries and veterinary researchers revealed the underlying mechanism: the vaccine caused the dams to produce aggressive anti-viral antibodies, present in their colostrum, which also attacked the newborn calves’ blood cells when they drank them.
Today, six years after PregSure was discontinued, previously vaccinated dams are still producing bleeding calves.
Bleeding Calf Syndrome raises a host of questions: What do these findings suggest for humans? What happens when pregnant women are vaccinated against foreign proteins? The CDC advises women to get vaccinated before, during and after pregnancy. Do these women pass on potentially cross-reactive antibodies to their babies as well?
It seems the industry is aware of the enormous implications of the phenomenon. A study published two months ago in the journal Vaccine states that, “Although maternal vaccination is generally considered to be safe, the occurrence of Bovine Neonatal Pancytopenia (BNP) in cattle shows that maternal vaccination may pose a risk to the offspring.”
“The occurrence of BNP years after last PregSure© BVD vaccination indicates that alloantibody levels may remain high in dams,” it adds. Alloantibodies are immune system components that recognize and attack proteins with genetic differences within species—as between a host and a tissue transplant graft, for example. “Since pregnancy induces alloantibodies we hypothesized that pregnancy boosts the vaccine-induced alloantibody response,” explain the researchers from the Department of Infectious Diseases and Immunology, Faculty of Veterinary Medicine at Utrecht University in The Netherlands.
Pregnancy seems to reactivate the immune system and relaunch antibody production – in calf after calf. It also suggests that pregnancy is a particularly vulnerable window for launching autoimmune disease.
You may be reassured to think only several thousand calves died from the PregSure vaccine, but recent veterinary studies have demonstrated that the bleeding calves are not all of the affected newborns. A 2014 study found that while only three percent of offspring expressed clinical bleeding calf syndrome, 15 percent of the clinically normal calves had “profoundly altered hematology.” Though they were not ill before they were sold, the researchers could not say if they would become so later or in different conditions.
What happens to the subclinical cows? Do they carry these alloantibodies for life and do they become clinically diseased with a stress trigger years later as per Autoimmune/inflammatory Syndrome Induced by Adjuvants? Are they already experiencing subtle symptoms of disease? I contacted Zoetis Inc. the animal health company that Pfizer spun off in 2013, to ask these questions. They said they would get back to me. I’m still waiting.
Again, the questions about subclinical disease in animals are important for humans. Is it possible that there are subclinical manifestations of other vaccine adverse events? Scientists have wondered if generalized anxiety and panic disorders might not be subclinical manifestations of narcolepsy, for example, because they also share symptoms of narcolepsy, such as cataplexy. Is it possible that H1N1 antibodies act subtly at lower levels but still have an effect on the brain? Is it possible that other vaccine proteins induce other autoimmune diseases in people with different susceptibilities?
These are questions that haven’t yet registered with public health vaccine advocates who sit in closed-door policy meetings and hold shares in the drugs they mandate. Bleeding calves won’t be on their radar for years, if ever. They still refuse to acknowledge that Pandemrix was linked to narcolepsy—though the industry does. And cases like Bobby Hunter? Forget it.
Public health regulators’ main interest is preserving the notion that vaccines help more than they harm. Anything else is blasphemous.
For the rest of us, though, a recent review in immunology literature should give pause. It states: “To date, more than 80 systemic and organ-specific autoimmune diseases have been defined, and their cumulative burden is substantial, both medically and financially. Furthermore, the burden of autoimmune and autoinflammatory diseases is rising, making these diseases a ubiquitous global phenomenon that is predicted to further increase in the coming decades.”
An autoimmune storm is rising. The role of vaccines in it is emerging and will one day be crystal clear. The question is, how far off is that day, and who is going to pay while we wait for it?
Note: The author is a national award-winning investigative journalist in the United Kingdom.