Ethnic differences in response may lead to vaccine improvements

By Laura Mize • Published: May 28th, 2014
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

Vaccines have been around in one form or another for centuries, and modern immunizations have protected millions of people from cruel diseases.

Despite this success, scientists are looking for ways to improve vaccines and vaccine practices. Mayo Clinic researchers recently tested the responses to the rubella vaccine in a diverse group of people. The vaccine prevents against German measles.

The results may surprise you. By looking at the levels of measles antibodies in each of the subjects’ blood, the researchers concluded that some people had a stronger response to the vaccine than other people did.

First, a refresher on how vaccines work. After vaccination, the body produces antibodies specific to the bacterium or virus contained in the vaccine. It does this because, although the germs are incapacitated and can’t cause disease, the body still recognizes them as foreign. It responds by producing antibodies, proteins that can neutralize the germs.

In the study, researchers found that African-Americans had higher levels of antibodies than either Caucasians or Hispanics. People with Somalian heritage had the highest levels detected — twice as high as Caucasians did. Meanwhile, Hispanics had the lowest levels of antibodies of all the study subjects.

Previous studies involving other vaccines have also found variations in different ethnicities’ responses.

The head scientist on this particular study says results like these may lead to changes. People of African descent may not need as much of the rubella vaccine as Caucasians do, for example. The vaccine supply would go further then, benefiting more people. For people with strong responses to vaccines, reduced doses also would decrease risk of complications.

That’s good news all the way around. It seems researchers are just starting to uncover some of the most fascinating aspects of vaccine science.