Maurice Hilleman

The initial vaccine was very “toxic” as Maurice recalled but he worked tirelessly to make the vaccine more acceptable until the FDA ( Food and Drug Administration in the US) approved the vaccine in 1969.

Aug. 28, 2015, 5:45 p.m. Published in Magazine Issue: Vol.: 09, No. -5, August 28 2015 (Bhadra 11, 2072)

We all now know that vaccination campaigns in Nepal even in remote corners have been in general very successful, but what hardly anyone knows is how some of these vaccines were discovered. Take the well- known M.M.R ( measles, mumps and rubella vaccine) which has saved millions of lives.

Maurice Hilleman who had a sailor’s vocabulary of expletive words would not be most people’s idea of a genius. And yet this man whose aim in life at one time was to be J.C. Penny’s store manager went on to become a ground-breaking microbiologist of our time.

When his daughter became sick with mumps one night in 1963,   he did not just try to tuck the child to sleep. With his unique American ingenuity and background as a microbiologist,  that night he collected samples from his daughter to isolate  the mumps organism and eventually went on to produce the vaccine against mumps. A word about how some vaccines like mumps are made.

Vaccines generally are used to fool the immune system to fight against the disease with antibodies without producing the full blown, actual disease. So first, the organism like mumps is isolated and kept alive in the laboratory. Now the tricky part is how to weaken or “attenuate” the organism so that it will produce the antibodies when injected into humans without causing a severe illness. This is often achieved by passing it over and over through a series of cells like chicken embryo so that the weakened self of the organism will stimulate the immune system without harming the host. The duration for the production of antibodies is usually 7 days after administration of the vaccine to humans.  

Maurice Hilleman had that rare combination of intellectual genius and a “can do” practical attitude that lead to success after success in the production of at least 25 vaccines, although our focus here is on just  M.M.R. vaccines.  He worked for Merck pharmaceuticals while inventing these vaccines.

In the spring of 1963 he designed a technique to administer the measles vaccine without causing  common side effects like fever and rash. And again in the spring of 1963, an epidemic of rubella broke out in Europe  and swept around the globe and afforded Maurice the opportunity to help produce a vaccine against this dreaded scourge, especially to avoid this disease in pregnant women whose babies were born deformed with rubella infection. (The vaccine is contraindicated in pregnancy).

The initial vaccine was very “toxic” as Maurice recalled but he worked tirelessly to make the vaccine more acceptable until the FDA ( Food and Drug Administration in the US)  approved the vaccine in 1969.

In 1971 Maurice put together his efficient three vaccines ( measles, mumps and rubella) replacing the series of six shots with just two, thus tremendously improving patient compliance. Again in 1978 the obsessive personality of this scientist who continued to search for safer and more effective combination of M.M.R  lead to adding a newer and better rubella vaccine to the combination. However toward the end of his life a total surprise awaited this resourceful man. It came in the form of an article in The Lancet, the most prestigious British medical journal in clinical medicine. 

The lead author in the article Dr Andrew Wakefield through a series of studies came to the conclusion that M.M.R. caused an epidemic of autism, a distressing neurological problem. So instead of resting in his laurels in his retirement Maurice started receiving hate mails and death threats.

Thankfully multiple independent studies challenged the findings of Dr Wakefield and The Lancet had to officially retract the infamous article in 2010. Unfortunately the news came too late for Maurice who had already died of stomach cancer by that time. In addition many European mothers who decided against having their children receive M.M.R to avoid autism had to deal with a very sick child some of whom tragically died.

Buddha Basnyat.jpg

Buddha Basnyat MD

Buddha Basnyat, MD, MSc, FACP, FRCP, Director of the Oxford University Clinical Research Unit-Patan Academy of Health Sciences, Kathmandu.

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