Christine Stabell Benn

Benn 2011
Benn, Christine Stabell. 2011. Combining Vitamin A and Vaccines: Convenience or Conflict? Bandim Health Project, Department of Epidemiology Research, Danish Epidemiology Science Centre, Statens Serum Institut. University of Copenhagen.


  The present thesis is based on 11 papers from 1995-2010. The studies have mainly taken place at the Bandim Health Project in Guinea-Bissau, West Africa, but a reanalysis of a randomised trial from Ghana is also included. 

My research has explored the consequences of combining high-dose vitamin A supplementation and childhood vaccines. Vitamin A deficiency is associated with increased mortality. To protect against the consequences of vitamin A deficiency the World Health Organization recommends that high-dose vitamin A supplements be given together with routine vaccines to children between 6 months and 5 years of age in more than 100 low-income countries. The recommendation is based on logistical considerations. The consequences of combining vitamin A and vaccines were not investigated in randomised trials prior to the implementation of this policy – it was assumed that the interventions were independent. 

My first project aimed to study the effect on the immune response to measles of providing vitamin A together with measles vaccine. We found that the two interventions were not independent. Vitamin A enhanced the antibody response to measles vaccine given at 9 months of age significantly, especially in boys. The effects were sustained over time; the children who had received vitamin A with their measles vaccine were more protected against measles at 6-8 years of age. 

Though vitamin A supplementation had a beneficial effect on the immune response to measles vaccine, it intrigued me that the effect of vitamin A supplementation on overall mortality was not always beneficial. While vitamin A was beneficial when given after 6 months of age, and two studies had shown a beneficial effect when given at birth, all studies testing the effect between 1-5 months of age had found no effect. These time windows are dominated by three different childhood vaccines: BCG vaccine given at birth, diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis (DTP) vaccine given between 1-5 months of age, and measles vaccine given at 9 months of age. These vaccines have been shown to have strong effects on mortality from infectious diseases in general, so-called non-specific effects. The live BCG and measles vaccine protects against more mortality than can be ascribed to the prevention of tuberculosis and measles, respectively. The inactivated DTP vaccine worryingly has been associated with increased mortality from other infectious diseases. Both positive and negative effects are strongest for girls. I proposed the hypothesis that vitamin A amplifies not only the specific vaccine effects, as we saw for measles vaccine, but also the non-specific effects of vaccines on mortality from other infectious diseases. According to my hypothesis, vitamin A would enhance the non-specific beneficial effects on mortality of BCG and measles vaccine, but also the negative effects of DTP vaccine. Hence, the hypothesis offered an explanation for the mortality-age pattern after vitamin A supplementation. 

Since it was formulated, I have aimed to test this hypothesis. Since it is associated with ethical problems to randomise children above 6 months of age to vitamin A supplementation, and to randomise children in general to recommended vaccines, we have had to be pragmatic when designing the trials. Hence, our studies have taken many different forms. We conducted an observational study during a vitamin A campaign in which missing vaccines were also provided, and a randomised trial testing the effect of two different doses of vitamin A during another campaign; we tested the effect of providing vitamin A with BCG at birth in two randomised trials, and we reanalysed data from one of the original randomised trials of vitamin A supplementation from the perspective of vaccination status. In all studies the main outcome was mortality. 

The results document that vitamin A supplements do more than protect against vitamin A deficiency. They support the hypothesis that vitamin A supplements interact with vaccines with important consequences for mortality. First, a smaller dose of vitamin A was more beneficial than a larger dose for girls. Second, the effect of vitamin A given with DTP vaccine was significantly different from the effect of vitamin A given with measles vaccine, and children, who received vitamin A with DTP vaccine, had higher mortality than children, who had received vitamin A alone, or who did not receive anything. Third, vitamin A given with BCG at birth interacted negatively with subsequent DTP vaccines in girls. Fourth, the effect of vitamin A to older children in Ghana depended on vaccination status, being beneficial in boys, but harmful in girls who received DTP vaccine during follow-up. The results also show that boys and girls respond differently to vitamin A and vaccines. 

It is a common assumption within public health in low-income countries that interventions can be combined without producing unexpected consequences. The work presented in this thesis confronts this assumption; the results show that vitamin A and vaccines should be seen not only as specific interventions with specific and independent effects, but as immuno-modulators, which can interact with important consequences for overall mortality. Combining interventions can be convenient and lead to synergistic health benefits, but we documented several examples, where it also leads to unexpectedly increased mortality. 

Thus, to optimise the child health intervention policy in low-income countries a shift in paradigm is needed. Health interventions should no longer be seen as merely specific and independent, and the policy should probably not be the same for boys and girls. Though more complex, it is necessary to evaluate all health interventions in terms of their effect on overall mortality - and their potential interactions with other health interventions and potential sex-differential effects should always be investigated. Only in this way can we assure that the children in the poorest countries get the best possible treatment and avoid using large amounts of money and resources on interventions that may, in worst case, kill them.