From the ongoing COVID-19 vaccination efforts to parents who reject childhood immunizations, vaccines today have become controversial.

The prevention of disease by vaccination has had an enormous impact on the health of children, representing one of the greatest public health achievements of the last century, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. However, acceptance of vaccines has been challenged by individuals and groups who question their benefit.

Between vaccine doubters and advocates stands Christine S. Benn, who for 25 years has researched some of the world’s oldest vaccines and found that some have impacts unanticipated and unrecognized – most positive, but not all.

Benn, professor at the University of Southern Denmark’s Centre for Global Health, will discuss her research in an upcoming talk, “How Vaccines Train the Immune System in Ways No One Expected,” part of the Maury Strauss Distinguished Public Lecture Series hosted by the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC. Benn’s lecture will be presented virtually via Zoom at 5:30 p.m. on April 15. Attendees should register online in advance.

“Dr. Benn is a global leader in vaccine research with decades of experience contributing to understanding the ways vaccines work,” said Michael Friedlander, executive director of the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute and Virginia Tech’s vice president for health sciences and technology. “At a time when vaccines are a constant topic of sometimes pointed public discussion, we’re fortunate to have Dr. Benn to bring her scientific perspective to the conversation.”

For nearly 30 years, Benn, who holds three doctoral degrees, has worked in the West African nation of Guinea-Bissau, where she is a steering board member of the Bandim Health Project. Her work there includes studies of the effects of vaccinations on infant survival rates and overall children’s health.

In her lecture, Benn will discuss how her findings challenge the common understanding of vaccines and the immune system.

Before the development of today’s new mRNA based vaccines, such as those used for COVID-19, classic vaccines fell into two major categories: live-attenuated vaccines, which contain a weakened but still live element of the disease, and inactivated vaccines, which contain only the dead disease-causing pathogen. But Benn’s research consistently found that live-attenuated vaccines have additional beneficial effects, while inactivated vaccines can have some negative impacts.

Infant mortality in Guinea-Bissau was reduced by a third in newborns given the live polio vaccine, Benn’s research found. While polio has been nearly eradicated, with just hundreds of cases documented globally each year, according the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Benn believes the vaccine still has significant health benefits that make it important to continue, as she explained in a 2018 TED Talk.

Meanwhile, the older, discontinued inactivated DTP vaccine (diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis) — not to be confused with today’s DTaP vaccine – while effective in immunizing people against those deadly diseases, also had negative effects, according to research by Benn and others.  

Issues of vaccine safety led several manufacturers to withdraw their original DTP vaccines and paved the way to the U.S. National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act in 1986. Children who had received the inactivated DTP vaccine were five times more likely to die, especially girls, which suggests this specific type of vaccine inadvertently inhibited the body’s immune system overall.

Benn believes altering the childhood vaccination program worldwide to emphasize vaccines that strengthen the whole immune system could save hundreds of thousands of children’s lives annually in low-income countries and dramatically reduce illness and health expenditures in high-income countries.

“This makes vaccines the largest untapped resource for improving health globally,” Benn said during the TED Talk.

Since 2012, Benn has led the Danish division of the Bandim Health Project. She has served on the World Health Organization (WHO) strategic advisory group of experts on immunizations’ working group on non-specific effects of vaccines, and as a WHO technical advisor on neonatal vitamin A policy. She also served as an expert member on the National Institutes of Health’s Inflammation and Nutritional Science for Programs/Policies and Interpretation of Research Evidence working group.

Benn earned her Doctor of Medicine, Doctor of Philosophy, and Doctor of Medical Science degrees from the University of Copenhagen. She won the University of Southern Denmark’s Innovation Prize in 2019.

To watch Benn’s virtual lecture and submit questions, register online via the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute website to receive access to the Zoom link, or watch the live webcast.

The series of free public lectures is named for Maury Strauss, a Roanoke businessman and longtime community benefactor who recognizes the value of bringing thought leaders and innovators in science, medicine, and health to share their work and vision with the Roanoke community.

Written by Matt Chittum