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Last Updated: Wednesday, 21 June 2006, 09:24 GMT 10:24 UK
Number one enemy of child infections
By Pauline Moffatt
BBC Radio 4

Maurice Hilleman
Dr Hilleman wanted to eradicate infections
How did controversy in the UK over the MMR vaccine affect the scientist who developed it?

Dr Maurice Hilleman created nine out of the 14 vaccines currently used to control childhood infection.

But his combined measles, mumps and rubella vaccine, the MMR has provoked much controversy.

Dr Hilleman was head of vaccine development at Merck & Co in the 1960s when he developed single vaccines for measles, mumps and rubella.

His daughter, Jeryl Lynn, recalls how her own childhood illness led to the mumps vaccine, the strain still used to this day.

"I got up in the middle of the night with a sore throat and woke my dad up.

He jumped out of bed, reached for the Merck manual and seemed very excited about the whole thing.

"Then he swabbed my throat, raced up to his lab and started developing the vaccine."

Lofty ambition

Dr Hilleman's ultimate goal was to eliminate all childhood infections.

It saddened him to see that knowledge was twisted in such a way to play in the hands of the anti-vaccine movement
Dr Adel Mahmoud

He also wanted the vaccines to be delivered to maximize the chances that more children would receive them.

That's what drove him to find ways to combine multiple vaccines into a single shot. He succeeded in 1971 with his MMR vaccine.

The MMR was introduced into the UK in 1988, but became increasingly controversial following Andrew Wakefield's study published in the Lancet in the late 1990s, which linked the vaccine with autism.

That study has now been discredited, and Dr Wakefield faces the prospect of serious professional misconduct charges.

However, the fall-out from the paper resulted in MMR uptake rates dropping to levels which experts warned could lead to a measles epidemic.

Dr Adel Mahmoud, President of Merck Vaccines, recalled how this affected Dr Hilleman.

"It saddened him to see that knowledge was twisted in such a way to play in the hands of the anti-vaccine movement and not really appreciate what vaccines are all about.

"They are about protection of individual, but also protection of the society so you achieve 'herd immunity'.

"Maurice believed in that and it really pained him a lot to see what was happening in the UK."

Sad development

Dr Paul Offit, Chief of Infectious Diseases at the Children's Hospital Philadelphia said: "I think it's sad that this tremendous achievement got taken up as a controversial one when it was frankly never controversial in the medical community."

Dr Anthony Fauci
It's almost mind boggling how many tens of millions he will have ultimately saved through his vaccines
Dr Anthony Fauci

During his long career Dr Hilleman created vaccines for over 40 infections, including Influenza and Hepatitis B.

In 1957 he became the only scientist ever to make a flu vaccine in advance of a pandemic, saving tens of thousands of lives across the US.

Dr Offit thinks it's unlikely scientists today could repeat this achievement.

"I don't think we would ever be able to make vaccine as quickly as he made it.

"How did he do it? He basically ignored regulatory agency at the time. He knew he was going to make the vaccine safely and he got it done."

By 1981 Dr Hilleman became the first and only person in history to use human blood as a source of viral protein to make a vaccine.

Hepatitis B was one of the vaccines Dr Hilleman was most proud of developing.

After his death in April 2005, Dr Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases said: "It's almost mind boggling how many tens of millions he will have ultimately saved through his vaccines."

Dr Robert Gallo, co-discoverer of the Aids virus, said: "I don't see anybody coming to take his place, any time soon."

The Vaccine Hunter is on BBC Radio Four on Wednesday 21 June at 2100 BST.

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