Stressful feelings may influence vaccine effectiveness

November 25, 2002

A person's state of mind may influence the body's response to a vaccine against meningitis C, suggests new research. The findings support previous research showing a link between psychological factors and antibody response to vaccines.

Researchers at the School of Sport and Exercise Sciences and the School of Medicine at the University of Birmingham in England asked 60 first-year undergraduate students to answer a battery of questions about their life events, perceived stress, psychological well-being, coping styles, social support and health behaviors.

The researchers also took blood samples to measure the concentration of protective meningitis C antibodies in the students. All of the students had previously received a meningitis C vaccine as part of a recently introduced national health program.

The results revealed that a high level of perceived life stress, but not actual stress, was associated with low antibody levels. A low level of psychological well being -- feeling anxious or under strain, for example -- was also linked to low antibody levels.

The antibody concentrations did not appear to be associated with the amount of time between the meningitis C vaccination and the antibody tests, the students' demographics or the students' health behaviors, however.

"These findings suggest that the feeling that one's life is stressful and the experience of high levels of distress were more detrimental than actual exposure to stressful life events," write Victoria E. Burns, Ph.D., and colleagues in the November/December issue of the journal Psychosomatic Medicine.

"The association between stress and vaccination response has potentially important clinical implications," the authors conclude. "In light of our findings, it may be important to monitor subsequent antibody status, particularly in those reporting high perceived stress and low levels of psychological well being."

The authors note that their research supports other studies that have found associations between psychological influences and antibody response to hepatitis B, influenza, and rubella vaccines. However, theirs is the first study to show that psychological factors are associated with antibody response to a conjugate vaccine, a vaccine type used to protect against meningitis C.

Meningitis is an inflammation of the membranes covering the brain and spinal cord. Bacterial meningitis, including meningitis C, is less common than viral meningitis, but can be life-threatening.

Bacterial meningitis often appears as single cases, but small outbreaks at institutions such as colleges or schools sometimes arise. In the United Kingdom, the meningitis C vaccine is routinely given to students before they enter a university, the study authors write.
Health Behavior News Service: (202) 387-2829 or
Interviews: Contact Sue Primmer at or +44 (121) 414-6680.
Psychosomatic Medicine: Contact Victoria White at (352) 376-1611, ext. 5300, or visit

BY Susan R. Farrer, Contributing Writer

Center for Advancing Health

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