"Smallpox Vaccine" by CDC / Public Domain

Could a Single Live Vaccine Protect against a Multitude of Diseases?

May 16, 2019

By Melinda Wenner Moyer

The heat of the sun, a blazing basketball in the West African sky, was softened by a breeze one afternoon last spring. Every so often the wind whisked a mango off a tree branch and dropped it with a thud on the corrugated iron roof that covered the health center in Bissau, the biggest city in the tiny country of Guinea-Bissau, where the rust-colored ground hadn’t felt a raindrop in six months. Inside the building, the air was still and dry, and a line of women and toddlers were sticky with sweat.

An 18-month-old named Maria with thick, dark braids studied me nervously as she perched on her mother’s lap. (The child’s name has been changed to protect her privacy.) Next to them, Carlito Balé, a soft-spoken doctor in a short-sleeved, white button-down shirt, talked with Maria’s mother in Portuguese creole, a percussive fusion of Portuguese and African dialects. Balé was telling the mother that Maria was eligible to participate in a clinical trial to test whether an extra dose of measles vaccine prevented not just the measles but many childhood infections that cause serious illness and death.

In the U.S., where life-threatening infections are rare, such a trial might not garner many volunteers. But in Guinea-Bissau, where lives have been scarred by decades of scant resources and poor medical care, families lined up in droves. The nation is one of the world’s poorest, and the CIA ranks infant mortality there as the fourth highest among 225 countries. Mothers often wait months to name their babies because one out of every 12 will die before his or her first birthday.

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