Vaccine-induced autoimmunity: the role of molecular mimicry and immune crossreaction

Cell Mol Immunol. 2018 Jun;15(6):586-594. doi: 10.1038/cmi.2017.151. Epub 2018 Mar 5.


Since the early 1800s vaccines have saved numerous lives by preventing lethal infections. However, during the past two decades, there has been growing awareness of possible adverse events associated with vaccinations, cultivating heated debates and leading to significant fluctuations in vaccination rates. It is therefore pertinent for the scientific community to seriously address public concern of adverse effects of vaccines to regain public trust in these important medical interventions. Such adverse reactions to vaccines may be viewed as a result of the interaction between susceptibility of the vaccinated subject and various vaccine components. Among the implicated mechanisms for these reactions is molecular mimicry. Molecular mimicry refers to a significant similarity between certain pathogenic elements contained in the vaccine and specific human proteins. This similarity may lead to immune crossreactivity, wherein the reaction of the immune system towards the pathogenic antigens may harm the similar human proteins, essentially causing autoimmune disease. In this review, we address the concept of molecular mimicry and its application in explaining post vaccination autoimmune phenomena. We further review the principal examples of the influenza, hepatitis B, and human papilloma virus vaccines, all suspected to induce autoimmunity via molecular mimicry. Finally, we refer to possible implications on the potential future development of better, safer vaccines.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Autoimmunity*
  • Cross Reactions / immunology*
  • Humans
  • Molecular Mimicry / immunology*
  • Myelin Sheath / metabolism
  • Pandemics
  • Viral Vaccines / adverse effects*


  • Viral Vaccines