Friday, August 7, 2009

Seroconversion after measles or MMR vaccine

or: Dr. Bob strikes again

Dr. Bob Sears has a great sense of humour. He likes to drop a completely batty or offensive post, only to backpedal with a “just kidding” in response to expert critiques of his book. A recent gem on his blog on the upcoming H1N1 vaccines (which is astonishingly content free):

Just how bad is the H1N1 flu? Our experience so far indicates that it is a little worse than the regular flu, but it is not the rampaging epidemic that will sweep through the country and kill everybody. So why is the government so worried? It’s because the evil drug companies are paying them to act worried and create hype over the H1N1 flu so that the drug companies can make billions of dollars selling a vaccine that everyone will be scrambling for. The companies can then hand some of that money back to the government officials who helped them out.
Followed by an immediate

I jest.

In my opinion, he is not jesting, but rather “probing” his audience to see just how far out towards the fringe he will find most customers for his “alternative” schedule and books. This is all reasonably subtle, although Dr. Bob probably underestimates (or does he) how thoroughly his posts are read.

A couple of days ago, Dr. Bob struck again, although I am afraid, this one might turn into an explicit “recommendation” in the revision of “The Vaccine Book”:

Dr. Bob Answers by Dr. Bob - posted on 8/4/2009

I just found out some interesting info. I'd known this already, but hadn't realized it's [sic] implications.
ONE dose of the MMR vaccine creates immunity in 97% of kids. I had thought that the reason for the booser [sic] was that because this wears off, so another dose is needed. At an AAP lecture last month, this topic came up.
It turns out the second dose isn't a booster at all. A booster means that immunity wears off and needs to be re-boosted. The second MMR isn't given because imunity [sic] wears off (although eventually it does in adulthood). It's given to try to induce immunity in the 3% of children who don't respond to the first MMR shot. Doctors were also suggesting that it would make more sense to give two MMR doses during toddlerhood, so these 3% don't go through young childhood without protection.

So, this means that technically 97% of kids don't need that second MMR. It would make more sense to check titers on all kids, then only give the second dose to those who need it. some of the peds in my area actually do just that (they aren't anti-vaccine at all).

So, I'm thinking that this might be a good general policy for everybody. So, I'm considering not recommending a second dose, unless titers show it is needed. I will likely make this an official change in my alternative schedule. I just have to put a little more thought into this before I make this official.

However, the government doesn't recommend this because the healthcare costs of coordinating this type of thing for everybody would be very high - it's much cheaper just to give everyone a second dose, since the vaccine is harmless (?)

I (or YOU) may have just opened a can of worms.

(from this post - typos are his)

This is Dr Bob at his best, which unfortunately is not very good. Since his measles/MMR vaccine recommendations have major public health implications, let me summarize what we know (from the biomedical literature).

A good place to start are the vaccine package inserts. Here is the one for Attenuvax, the monovalent measles vaccine, usually produced by Merck, but on backorder at the moment (presumably until 2011) and the only monovalent measles vaccine licensed in the US. I am assuming this is where the “97%” that Bob quotes comes from. The package insert states that “97% or more” seroconvert, but “1 to 5% remain unprotected”. Seroconversion means that vaccinees who had no antibodies to the specific vaccine/disease show specific antibodies after disease or vaccination (the blood serum "converts" from negative to positive).

There is some (not much under that brand name) literature:

A small study looked at seroconversion depending on age. They vaccinated 15 15-months olds with Attenuvax, all 15 seroconverted (i.e. 100%). Then they vaccinated 6-months olds, 74% of 19 6-months olds vaccinated seroconverted, but had a lower titer than the older children. Significantly, upon boosting, all infants seroconverted and developed a higher titer. This is further confirmed by Erdmann and colleagues who find that titers can increase after revaccination or measles infection after one measles shot.
While these are small studies, they illustrate the principle that titers after one shot can be low and poor responders will be boosted by the second measles shot. This boosting effect of the second measles containing vaccine has also been observed in a very systematic MMR study from Sweden.

To dissect the 97%/100%-1 to 5% number in the package insert further, we can look at this larger study of over 600 children: Watson et al find that 5.4% of children at school entry who were initially vaccinated with monovalent measles vaccine at 15 to 17 months are non immune. This is the most realistic study I can find. The authors do not see an influence of age on seroconversion, so based on this available literature, we can assume that between 94 and 95% of children would seroconvert after vaccination with monovalent measles vaccine and remain immune until school entry.

The other possible vaccine, we can use to immunize against measles, is the MMR. The MMRii package insert states that seroconversion for measles is 95%. This is consistent with the majority of the available biomedical literature (see for example here and here). A huge number of studies using different measles containing vaccines consistently show a better immune response to the measles component in children older than a year (12, 15, or 18 months) vs infants (6 or 9 months). Dr. Bob consistently implies that the MMR vaccine given at age 4 would lead to sufficient seroconversion in most children (maybe extrapolating from the better responses in toddlers vs infants), however, the only paper systematically comparing the effect of age on seroconversion beyond the age of two finds that younger children respond better than the school age vaccinees.

Taken together, clinical data from Attenuvax and MMRii indicate a realistic rate of seroconversion of about 95% which would mean that up to 200’000 children per year/birth cohort in the US remain susceptible to measles after their first MMR/monovalent measles vaccine.

When devising a general vaccine recommendation, one cannot ignore the mumps and rubella components of the MMR. While the initial rubella seroconversion is consistently reported as excellent and near 100%, secondary vaccine failure occurs and leads to susceptibility during pregnancy. Currently, up to 9% of women in the US are found to be susceptible to rubella, having received a booster is highly predictable of protection at reproductive age. Even more dramatically, initial seroconversion to mumps can be variable (rates as low as 75% are reported in the literature, although values around 90% are more typical) and mumps immunity wanes with time, therefore putting a child who is not boosted at a significant risk (see for example here and here ).

So how practical is Dr Bob’s suggestion of one MMR at age 4 and a subsequent titer check and revaccination for the non immune as a “general recommendation”?

1. Children would go entirely unprotected for the first 4 years of their lives, leaving them vulnerable at an age when measles have a particularly high risk of complications, including SSPE.
2. After MMR vaccination at age 4, ALL children would need to have their titers tested. This involves a (sometimes very painful and traumatic) blood draw and titer tests for measles, mumps and rubella. Presumably, insurances will not pay for this (which doesn’t bother a doctor in private practise, like Dr Bob, but may lead to reduced compliance in the general public).
3. 5% of all children tested will not be immune against measles – more will have a low titer, up to 20% will not be immune against mumps, 1% or so will not be immune against rubella. Therefore, up to 20% of all children (or more, if you include the ones with low titer) would benefit from the second MMR.
4. All women would have to be re-screened before trying to conceive to see whether they are still immune to rubella.

I cannot give out medical advice, I am not an MD. However, given all available data, the strategy suggested by Dr Bob Sears seems to present a significant threat to public (and individual) health due to the long period he intends to leave children unprotected. His strategy is unnecessarily costly and complicated which may lead to a decrease in compliance and further increase in the number of susceptible children, then in a school setting where measles and mumps spread particularly well. In the long run, children who tested “immune” against measles, mumps and rubella and did not get the second MMR might lose measles, mumps and rubella immunity, contributing to outbreaks in high schools and colleges/universities. Women may lose rubella immunity, leading to a re-emergence of congenital rubella syndrome.

A general vaccination schedule comprising 2x MMR, the first one at age 1 (12 to 15 months) and the second one between 4 and school entry is safer (immunity earlier, better long term immunity for every child), cheaper (no titer tests) and easier to follow (fewer doctors’ visits). Unless, of course, one considers the second MMR as some unmeasurable danger that is best avoided, which brings us back to Dr. Bob’s MMR recommendations and his true beliefs. Does he really believe the second MMR would be so traumatic that it is worth avoiding it at the above mentioned expenses (both medical and financial), or is this “new” recommendation a plot to keep the “brave Maverick doctor" label when all science points to no connection between MMR and neurodevelopmental disorders? Certainly, Dr. Bob is more brazen about his choice of professional alliances of late, moving further and further away from a position that would be acceptable for any "majority".

edited within first hour of posting to fix links and typo


  1. Catherina, As Dr Bob says, this was discussed at an AAP meeting. Are you saying that the AAP is incorrect?

  2. Anonymous, I believe that this was just a conversation amongst some of the physicians in attendance at the AAP meeting. Physicians that aren't involved in vaccine research and disease epidemiology. So Dr. Bob's 'observation' does not reflect the AAP position on the MMR vaccine schedule.

  3. Science Mom, Do you know this to be factual? How do you know for sure if you were not present? Did Dr Bob tell you that it was just a "side-conversation"?

  4. I qualified my statement appropriately and I also know of the many vaccine scientists and epidemiologists that would not recommend what Dr. Bob is proposing. But feel free to ask Dr. Bob to qualify his statements and he is, of course, always welcome to comment here.

  5. Of course they wouldn't, if they did, pharmaceutical companies would lose tons of $$$

  6. Anon - I hate to bust your bubble, but the MMR has been around for so long that it is not really the big money maker for Merck. They would not lose much under Dr Bob's scheme - they would still sell all first doses and about 20% of the second doses at school entry and more when kids enter college.

    The above scheme is a money maker for doctors and labs doing the MMR testing (just like the recommendation to separate the MMR currently is a money maker for private docs who can charge 3x instead of one). I don't think Merck cares much.

    Ultimately, it is the children who lose out. They stay unprotected unnecessarily long and get unnecessary blood draws.

  7. Wow, this is interesting! Thanks! :D

    And keep up the good work, thanks for that too :)

  8. What utter fecklessness.

    Has he bothered to look into the causes of the 1989-90 measles outbreak in the US? I'm sure it couldn't possibly have been linked to widespread vaccination delay and a single-shot MMR schedule, of course.

  9. And to test for seroconversion? As you state, it is a hassle, but the expense would be massive for no informational benefit.

    Thanks for a great post. Dr. Bob is nuts. His homeopathic ear drops cure ear infections in under 7 days of use. Of course, the natural course of an ear infection is 48 hours.

  10. You guys are TOTALLY obsessed with Dr. Bob. What is this blog... SM and Catherina battle Dr Bob? You can't have anything to say that isn't about Dr Bob????

  11. Anon,
    the blog is about seroconversion after MMR or MCV to clarify a misconception that is being spread potentially very widely. What is wrong with that? Do you have issues with any of the scientific/biomedical content of this post?

  12. I am 35 years old and was just tested to see if I am immune to MMR. While I was pregnant with my child, the test came back inconclusive for Rubella. Well, I am not immune to Mumps or Rubella and I was vaccinated as a child. So, I am off to find a doctor who will give me only those 2 shots.

  13. I, too have found myself amused and educated by Dr. Gorski's columns and commentators. ORAC has gathered some pretty bright guys over there and I was wondering it you two would have any interest in a similarly spirited, intelligent discussion of autism spectrum issues without the obsession with vaccines but with an emphasis on other etiologies and with an emphasis on caring for, supporting and mitigating the inequality of care given to children with PDDs.

    Also, if possible, absent the pervasive nastiness found at Respectful Insolence.


  14. Sorry I didn't see this post until now Dr. Jay but sure, we can discuss your parameters. Although we can't make any guarantees about comments made.

  15. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  16. The other point here is 'what would be the value of testing prior to revaccination?".

    The fact is that pretty much all of the rare but significant adverse reactions associated with MMR vaccination are associated with the vaccine virus multiplying in the body. When you vaccinate somebody who is already immune, the immune system wipes out the virus before it can replicate. That's why adverse reactions are so much lower after subsequent doses than after the first dose.

    What this means is that if you are immune, the vaccine is harmless; and if you're not immune, you need it.

    Taking a blood sample, by contrast, is more invasive. You generally have to get a needle into a vein - not easy, especially with small wriggling children, and therefore more painful. You then have to give some of them a vaccine anyhow.

    Remember that with MMR there's about a 90% chance of responding to the measles and mumps components after a shot. It's better for rubella - about 97%. But your chances of responding to all three are lower. (It won't quite as bad as by 0.9 x 0.9 x 0.97, because some of the failures will be because the vaccine has not been maintained properly, but it will be getting close...)

    But the key fact is: if you're immune, the vaccine will be harmless; if you're not immune, you need it (and it's very close to harmless anyway).

  17. The last time I checked vaccines didn't appear to be candy. They do not come with out side effects and without risk. I think it is dangerous to assume that we understand the complete picture for vaccines. For most individuals we expect that everything goes well but there are still many unknowns. Science isn't necessarily always right sometimes it is more right now.
    I live in Canada and my dr gave about the same info for the seroconversion rate of 95% with one dose and that was all components according to Merck rep. It would seem to me that it would be prudent to check regardless as there are many individuals that never seroconvert despite repeated injections. I never seroconverted to small pox vax was injected at least 2 times. My nephew did not seroconvert to mmr after 3 injections. I am not for one size fits all medicine. Call me crazy, but I don't think it is right to use children as sacrificial lambs.

  18. In my state, blood lead tests are required in our town before entering school, so I combined the blood draw for the lead test with a titer for MMR, thus eliminating any extra blood work being done on my child as stated above. He was immune to measles, mumps, and rubella, and was not required to have the booster.

  19. Anonymous, Wow lead blood tests. Are you in an area where this is a problem? Please bear in mind that your son may show protective titres now but may not, particularly to mumps in adolescence or later so if you don't boost (and my recommendation would be that you do in adolescence) that you re-check titres.

  20. This: