M for MMR
Once again I am blogging my way from A to Z as part of the 2015 April A to Z Challenge! Come blog through the alphabet with me!
Let’s agree to put aside the vaccine debate for a bit, at least for as long as it takes you to read this post. Instead, I thought it would be interesting to talk about how the MMR was developed. It is the story of a driven man.
What is the MMR?
The MMR is a 3-in-one vaccine that provides protection against three viruses commonly affecting children (at least before vaccination) : measles, mumps and rubella (German measles). The complete vaccine is given as a series of two shots which are usually given between 12-15 months of age and again between 4-6 years of age.
In the early 70’s the 3 vaccines were combined into one shot. Without the combination vaccine, kids would have to receive three separate shots; one given every 6 weeks (at 13-15 months and again at 4-6 years). The combo vaccine allows kids to be vaccinated for all 3 diseases earlier in life and increases the chance that they will actually receive all 3 vaccinations.
The MMR vaccine is composed of 3 attenuated viruses. This means that the viruses have been weakened by growth in the laboratory and no longer cause disease when given to humans. However, they still provoke the immune response that provides life-long protection from disease.
How was the MMR developed?
The MMR vaccine was developed by a man who was a father and a scientist. In the early 1960’s, Dr. Maurice R. Hilleman worked for Merck (a leading pharmaceutical company). One night he was woken up by his 5-year-old daughter, Jeryl Lynn. She had a sore throat and swelling beneath her jaw – tell-tale signs of a disease that every parent of the age was aware of: mumps.
But not every parent was a scientist and could do what Dr. Hilleman did. He drove to the lab, picked up supplies and drove back home to take a swab of Jeryl Lynn’s throat. He then stored the swab in a freezer (back at the lab, of course).
Dr. Hilleman’s specialty at Merck was vaccine studies. In particular, he was interested in improving the safety of vaccines by removing unwanted side effects. At the time of Jeryl Lynn’s sickness he was already working with the measles vaccine. The early measles vaccines induced rashes and fever after vaccination. Dr. Hilleman worked with the vaccine for 4 years to develop the safer vaccine that is still used today. Similarly, Dr. Hilleman was asked to work with a vaccine to rubella developed by federal regulators. The vaccine was toxic until Dr. Hilleman worked his magic on it. During this time Dr. Hilleman was also growing the mumps virus he isolated from his daughter to develop a vaccine.
In 1971 he decided to combine the three viruses to develop a vaccine that required only 2 shots instead of 6. Thus, the MMR was created. But this still wasn’t good enough for Dr. Hilleman. When an even safer vaccine for rubella became available in 1978, he asked to include it in his MMR vaccine, eschewing any personal ego in favor of vaccine safety.
A sad ending
Given his drive for developing safe vaccines, I can only imagine how devastating it must have been to him when Andrew Wakefield (that louse) published data suggesting that the MMR vaccine could cause autism. Unfortunately, Dr. Hilleman died of cancer in 2005 and did not live long enough to see Wakefield stripped of his medical degree or to learn of his atrocities to medicine.
You know, it’s odd. I am a trained virologist and if I was asked to name a famous virologist, his name would not come to mind. Yet he is credited with saving more lives than any other 20th century scientist. And Dr. Robert Gallo (the discoverer of HIV), said he is “the most successful vaccinologist in history.” He (and his minions) created more than 40 human and other animal vaccines in his lifetime; 8 of these are still given routinely to children in the US.
Thank you Dr. Hilleman.