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Is it Worth Vaccinating People Against the Common Cold?

October 11, 2016

Every winter, elderly people, pregnant women, young children and other individuals with weakened immune systems are encouraged to receive a flu jab from their doctor to ensure they are protected against the influenza virus.

Flu can prove deadly to those with extremely vulnerable immune systems, while treating it can place a significant strain on health service resources, meaning it makes perfect sense for flu vaccines to be widely and cheaply available across the world.

But does it make the same sense to vaccinate people against the common cold? Catching a cold is more of an inconvenience than a serious illness for the majority of people, but it can turn into something significantly more dangerous for the elderly or those who have undergone treatment for cancer and other diseases.

As a result, scientists in Atlanta are working to develop a preventative vaccine for the common cold. But is this really necessary, and could it increase the risk of sharps injuries?

A vaccine for the common cold

Researchers based at Emory University School of Medicine and Children's Healthcare of Atlanta, USA believe creating a single vaccine designed to eliminate the common cold - or, to give it its scientific name, rhinovirus - could have significant benefits for global public health and healthcare spending.

The scientists have been conducting studies involving mice and monkeys, injecting them with many different varieties of rhinovirus all at once. There is a theory that people do not catch the same strain of the virus more than once throughout their lifetimes, meaning they need to be immune to as many strains as possible if their health is to be fully protected.

Initial tests showed that introducing the virus into the body effectively stimulated immune responses. This led to the triggering of many different antiviral antibodies that could fight the virus, leaving the immune system protected as a result.

This marks the first time that such a trial has been successful, as previous attempts to create a common cold vaccine back in the 1960s only focused on one strain of the rhinovirus.

Lead researcher on the project Martin Moore stated: "It's surprising that nobody tried such a simple solution over the last 50 years. We just took 50 types of rhinovirus and mixed them together into our vaccine, and made sure we had enough of each one.

"If we make a vaccine with 50 or 100 variants, it's the same amount of total protein in a single dose of vaccine. The variants are like a bunch of slightly different Christmas ornaments, not really like 50 different vaccines mixed."

So, what are the potential benefits of the widespread use of a vaccine for the common cold?

Potential benefits of a common cold vaccine

The most obvious potential benefit of a common cold vaccine being widely available is that it will protect the health of the public, particularly those with weaker immune systems. Although it is difficult to estimate just how many people die each year due to complications arising from the common cold, the number is believed to be in the millions, as potentially deadly pneumonia and bronchitis are both risks associated with the rhinovirus.

A preventative vaccine would help to lower these death rates, and could also assist towards tackling the growing problem of antibiotic resistance. Bacteria are becoming increasingly immune to common forms of antibiotic medicines, and with a lack of new options being developed, there are concerns that easily-treatable conditions could become more deadly in the future, particularly if over prescription continues.

Former UK Prime Minister David Cameron warned in 2014: "If we fail to act, we are looking at an almost unthinkable scenario where antibiotics no longer work and we are cast back into the Dark Ages of medicine, where treatable infections and injuries will kill once again."

However, vaccinating people could help to end the erroneous use of antibiotics to cure colds, as these drugs are only effective in treating bacteria, not viruses, so should not be given out in such cases. As a result, if a patient catches a superbug or another virus that is tricky to treat, their immunity would be in a stronger position to fight it off.

What's more, fewer patients suffering from common cold symptoms or complications mean health services would have fewer people to treat throughout the cold winter months, subsequently saving them money and putting less of a strain on their already stretched resources.

Possible risks of a cold vaccine

At the same time, however, the possibility of making a common cold vaccine widely available throughout the world raises some concerns, primarily in regard to healthcare budgets and sharps safety.

While health services across the globe could find themselves saving some money as they would potentially no longer have to treat patients for complications linked to the rhinovirus, there would most likely be a cost associated with administering the preventative vaccine to millions of people each year.

In addition, introducing millions of extra vaccines would increase the risk of sharps injuries occurring. As so many extra injections would be taking place every day all across the world, there would be millions more opportunities for a needlestick to occur, putting both patients and healthcare professionals at risk of pathogens associated with blood-borne infections including hepatitis C and HIV.

On the other hand, the introduction of a common cold vaccine could have significant benefits for the sharps safety market, with a significant number of additional medical professionals requiring safety caps for needle-based devices to enable them to safely administer the injections.

What are your thoughts on vaccinating people against the common cold? Do you think the pros would outweigh the cons? Get in touch to let us know.