JENNINGS’ NRC WORK SAVES LIVES OF CHILDREN
The Ottawa researcher who made meningitis vaccine for infants says such immunization should be mandatory, writes Blair Crawford.
At a time when a measles outbreak reveals some parents are refusing to vaccinate their children, the father of another vaccine was honoured Friday for service to his country. Dr. Harold Jennings, 85, was made an officer of the Order of Canada for his “seminal contributions to the development of life-saving pediatric vaccines.”
Jennings was a researcher at the National Research Council Institute for Biological Sciences and an expert in complex sugars known as polysaccharides when he was approached to help develop a vaccine for Group C meningitis. Polysaccharide-based vaccines had existed for several decades but were ineffective for use in infants. Jennings found a method of coating the vaccine with proteins that could be used to immunize infants.
First used in Britain following a serious outbreak in 1999 in which hundreds of children were infected, the vaccine proved effective and is now part of standard immunization schedule in North America and Europe.
Q Why do you think some parents are opting out of vaccinations?
A I suppose it’s purely a personal choice, but what people don’t realize is that once you break down the vaccination schedules then you start getting a reappearance of the disease. They have to be rigidly stuck to, otherwise the vaccine won’t perform as it should. You can’t ask me for an explanation for that because I don’t understand it, either. Why are they refusing? I don’t understand. The evidence is so great that this does present disease. I just don’t see why people are objecting.
Q What makes vaccination effective?
A It gives you herd immunity, and that’s the idea of everyone getting the vaccine. Once you’ve got herd immunity, no one can get the disease. You protect everybody by giving these kids the vaccine as infants. But if you break that, then obviously these things are going to break out again later on.
Q And if parents don’t
A We’ve seen (what happens) already with measles. It’s in the States, and now it’s come into Canada.
What would you say to parents to refuse to vaccinate their child?
A It’s difficult for me to say this, but the evidence is so clear that vaccines work. I can’t understand why people don’t accept that small obeisance to that law to protect the whole of society. Why should people have the freedom to say ‘I’m not going to have my child immunized’? It doesn’t harm the kid. If you look at the evidence, the evidence is so clear.
I think they should make infant vaccines mandatory, especially when they go to school. You’ve got to keep on top of these problems.
Q What makes a meningitis vaccine so important?
A It’s devastating disease. It affects the brain, and it causes death and loss of arms and legs, all kinds of features. It’s a deadly disease.
Q How was the Group C meningitis vaccine developed?
A I went to NRC (in 1966) to work as a carbohydrate chemist. After a while I went to a meeting in the U.S., and they told me they were trying to see if they could get a vaccine against meningitis for infants ... I linked the polysaccharides to tetanus toxoid (an existing tetanus vaccine for children and adults) to make a conjugate vaccine, and lo and behold, this actually worked.
Q What happened then?
A We published our paper in 1981 and got our patent in 1982. I tried to find a company that would make it and eventually met Dr. Bellini (Dr. Francesco Bellini of the Montreal biotech firm Biochem Pharma) who decided to take it on. He made the first batches.
There was an outbreak of Group C meningitis in England — a very, very bad one — and that’s what prompted them to use this vaccine for the first time. A lot of kids had this, and as soon as the vaccine was used, all the cases disappeared. It works.
Q When did you retire from the NRC?
A I haven’t retired. I’m a Distinguished Research Scientist, although I’m mostly an adviser now.
Q The National Research Council has undergone a lot of change in recent years …
A It’s undergone a big change. These are only my opinions, but I’m not sure it’s a change for the better. But maybe I’m being a bit selfish. Scientists had more freedom in those days. They have much less now.
Q Do you think research like yours would be possible at the NRC today?
A Yes, I think it could. But the fact is, people don’t have the freedom to choose what it is they work on. That’s what’s become restricted.
It’s the structure of the place. I couldn’t explain it quickly. The structure has changed so much now that the independent scientist has disappeared. It’s directed research, and it’s directed into industry. I think it’s politics. That’s where the pressure if coming from.