The existing vaccine paradigm assumes that vaccines only protect against the target infection, that effective vaccines reduce mortality corresponding to the target infection's share of total mortality, and that the effects of vaccines are similar for males and females. However, epidemiological vaccine research has generated observations that contradict these assumptions and suggest that vaccines have important non-specific effects on overall health in populations. These include the observations that several live vaccines reduce the incidence of all-cause mortality in vaccinated compared with unvaccinated populations far more than can be explained by protection against the target infections, and that several non-live vaccines are associated with increased all-cause mortality in females. In this Personal View we describe current observations and contradictions and define six emerging principles that might explain them. First, that live vaccines enhance resistance towards unrelated infections. Second, non-live vaccines enhance the susceptibility of girls to unrelated infections. Third, the most recently administered vaccination has the strongest non-specific effects. Fourth, combinations of live and non-live vaccines given together have variable non-specific health effects. Fifth, vaccinating children with live vaccines in the presence of maternal immunity enhances beneficial non-specific effects and reduces mortality. Finally, vaccines might interact with other co-administered health interventions, for example vitamin A supplementation. The potential implications for child health are substantial. For example, if BCG vaccination was given to children at birth, if higher measles vaccination coverage could be obtained, if diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis-containing vaccines were not given with or after measles vaccine, or if the BCG strain with the best non-specific effects could be used consistently, then child mortality could be considerably lower. Pursuing these emerging principles could improve our understanding and use of vaccines globally.
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