tine Stabell Benn – TEDx Talk TRANSCRIPT
What is one of the most important things you can give your baby? Something every child needs? Love? Food? My answer might be slightly different from yours.
In my opinion, one of the most important things you can give her is a live polio vaccine. Let me tell you why.
I am a medical doctor and a researcher, and for the past 25 years, I’ve been working in the small West African country Guinea-Bissau.
And here I am at the Maternity Ward together with the nurse Gina. In the crib in front of us lies a little baby girl. She was born the previous evening. I know for you to relate to her, it would be better if I could tell you her name, but she hasn’t got a name yet.
Mothers in Guinea-Bissau do not name their children until later. They know there is a high risk they will die. Currently, one out of fifteen newborns do not live to see their first birthday. Right here, in this video, the little girl gets a live polio vaccine, a few drops of weakened polio virus in the mouth.
According to the current understanding of vaccines, this should do nothing to her risk of surviving or dying because there is no polio in Guinea-Bissau.
But our research has shown that this vaccine will train her immune system and make her so strong that she can combat all kinds of different diseases. And this will significantly reduce her risk of dying. A super vaccine which can train your baby’s immune system and make her so strong that she can combat all kinds of diseases. Who wouldn’t want that?
Why haven’t you heard about this before?
In my opinion one of the main reasons is that vaccines have become such a tense battlefield between vaccine supporters and vaccine sceptics. Arguments have become black and white.
Vaccines are good, vaccines are bad. There is no room for new perspectives. There is no room for our research findings. But for the next fifteen minutes, I ask you to kindly set aside any opinion you may have about vaccines and allow me to tell you what we discovered.
In Guinea-Bissau, we have a field station where we follow 200,000 people with regular home visits and we register all deliveries, all vaccinations, all hospitalizations, health center visits, all child deaths. And with this information we started doing what nobody else had done before us: we evaluated the effect of vaccines on overall health.
This may come as a surprise, but normally vaccines are not assessed for their effects on overall health. They’re only assessed for their protective effects against the vaccine disease. Everybody has been so convinced that vaccines only had protective effects against the vaccine disease, so it didn’t seem necessary to assess their effects on overall health.
But when we started looking at the effect of vaccines on overall health, it quickly became clear to us that there was something wrong. Something was simply missing in this equation.
Because some vaccines had a much bigger effect on overall health than could be predicted based on their specific protective effect, and other vaccines had much less effect than was expected.
So we realized that vaccines also affect the risk of other diseases. They had what we called non-specific effects. And with this insight, we started to look closer at all the childhood vaccines. We wanted to throw light on their non-specific effects.
Before I tell you what we found, I need to tell you, because it is very important, that there are two major types of vaccines: the live vaccines and the non-live vaccines. And they are fundamentally different.
The live vaccines contain a little bit of the weakened disease and it creates a mild natural infection in the body which is so mild that it usually doesn’t cause any symptoms. These vaccines are really good at stimulating the immune system, so you know them because these are the vaccines you only need one shot of to get a good protection.
The non-live vaccines also contain the disease, but only it has already been killed.
So the non-live vaccines, they also contain the disease, but it has already been killed. So these vaccines are not very good at stimulating the immune system, and you know that because these are the vaccines which you need several shots of, of the same vaccine, to get good protection.
But on the positive side, these non-live vaccines can never cause the real disease in the body. Not even in people with very weak immune systems, so most doctors prefer them over the live vaccines and nowadays most newly developed vaccines are non-live.
When you are born, your immune system is a beginner when it comes to battling infections. It’s like somebody who enters the tennis court for the first time and has to learn how to play tennis.
And the real infection, it is a really skilled opponent, which may beat the hell out of you and even send you off the court of life.
Live vaccines can be seen as a tennis coach who challenges you and makes you run around the court to return her strokes. Non-live vaccines, on the other hand, can be resembled to a tennis ball machine. You learn how to hit one particular stroke when the ball comes at you with a very specific speed, at a very specific spot.
Both types of vaccines create protection against the vaccine disease, but it turns out that they have very, very different non-specific effects.
And this is the moment to remind you that I asked you to set aside your opinions about vaccines for a full fifteen minutes. We have now evaluated 10 vaccines for their non-specific effects, four live and six non-live, and the results are very consistent.
All the live vaccines are associated with very beneficial non-specific effects. They improve overall health much more than could be expected, based on their protective effects. It is as if playing with a tennis coach teaches you a wide variety of new tricks, which make you able to combat all kinds of new and different opponents in the future.
Non-live vaccines, on the other hand, all have negative non-specific effects. They simply do not improve overall health as much as expected based on the protective effects, and, in fact, most of them have negative effects on overall health.
So to stick with the metaphor, playing with the ball machine only teaches you one particular stroke, so you are actually really ill-prepared and even worse off when a real opponent enters the court and the balls start coming and hitting elsewhere than what you trained for.
I’d like to give you two examples of the studies we did of these vaccines, and let’s start with a live vaccine, the live polio vaccine.
As I said in the beginning, nobody really expects any effect of this vaccine on overall health, because polio is almost eradicated. But when we tested the effect of live polio vaccine in Guinea-Bissau, we saw, in a randomized trial among newborns, that the newborns who were randomly allocated to live polio vaccine, their mortality was reduced by a third compared with the children who didn’t get live polio vaccine at birth.
This very big effect of live polio vaccine on the risk of dying was clearly purely non-specific – there was no polio. So live polio vaccine made the babies stronger and more able to combat all kinds of other diseases. We have seen these very beneficial non-specific effects of live polio vaccine in many other studies now and in even more studies, we have seen very beneficial non-specific effects of three other live vaccines – measles, tuberculosis and smallpox vaccines.