Background: Previous studies have suggested that standard measles vaccine may reduce mortality by more than the number of deaths thought to be caused by measles infection in areas with high mortality. However, these observations have not been based on randomized trials.
Methods: During the recent war in Guinea-Bissau, most children fled from the city of Bissau and immunization services in the country broke down for several months. We were performing a trial in which children were randomized at 6 months of age to receive either measles vaccine or inactivated polio vaccine. Because of the war many children did not receive the dose of measles vaccine planned for 9 months of age. We were able to monitor mortality during the war and after.
Results: Included in the study were 433 children 6 to 11 months of age. Fifteen children died (3.6%) during the first 3 months of the war before vaccination programs were resumed, 4 of 214 measles-vaccinated children and 11 of 219 children who had received inactivated polio vaccine. The effect of measles vaccine was marked for girls [mortality rate ratio (MR), 0.00; 95% confidence limits, 0.0 to 0.37], whereas there was no difference for boys (MR = 1.02; 95% confidence limits, 0.25 to 3.88). In a combined analysis controlling for factors that differed between the two groups, the MR for measles-vaccinated children was 0.30 (95% confidence limits, 0.08 to 0.87). Prolonging the period of observation to the end of 1998 or including the prewar period did not modify the significant beneficial effect of measles vaccine for girls. Twenty-two of the children in the cohort were reported to have had measles, 8 cases occurring during the 3 months of the war. Exclusion of measles cases in the analysis did not change the results; children who had received measles vaccine had a MR of 0.28 (95% confidence limits, 0.06 to 0.89) during the first 3 months of the war.
Conclusions: Consistent with previous observational studies, measles vaccination was associated with a reduction in mortality that cannot be explained by the prevention of measles infection. This nonspecific beneficial effect was particularly strong for girls. Further studies are needed to examine the extent of nonspecific effects in settings with high mortality.