Women tend to have a greater immune response to a flu vaccination compared to men

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Women tend to have a greater immune response to a flu vaccination compared to men, but their advantage largely disappears as they age and their estrogen levels decline, suggests a study from researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

The researchers, whose study appears July 12 in the journal npj Vaccines, evaluated responses to the flu vaccine in 50 adults age 18-45 years and 95 adults age 65 and older, and found that the women in the younger group had a stronger immune response compared to the older women and all men.

Experiments in mice yielded similar results, and suggested that estrogen – levels of which lessen with age in females – boosts females’ immune responses to flu vaccines, while testosterone lowers males’ responses.

The scientists expect that their results will be generalizable to other vaccines.

“We need to consider tailoring vaccine formulations and dosages based on the sex of the vaccine recipient as well as their age,” says study senior author Sabra Klein, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of Molecular Microbiology and Immunology at the Bloomberg School.

Scientists have known that women tend to have stronger immune responses to vaccines, and also that the elderly tend to have weaker responses.

Klein and colleagues in their study set out to get a better understanding of the interaction of these sex- and age-related differences.

First, they evaluated immune responses to the 2009 H1N1 influenza vaccine in 145 human volunteers—one group age 18-45 years, the other 65 and older.

Analyzing key markers of the immune response, the researchers found that, on average, women in the younger group had a stronger response compared to both the men and the older women.

The younger women had, for example, a jump in their levels of the important immune protein IL-6 that was almost three times greater than that seen in the younger men, and almost double that seen in older women.

Measures of the anti-flu antibody response also were higher for the younger women compared to the men and the older women, though the greatest differences were between the younger and older women.

The team conducted a similar set of experiments in adult and aged mice and observed similar results.

They also determined that the younger mice, compared to the older mice, were much better protected from a challenge with live flu virus – the younger female mice being best protected.

This group, for example had much less flu-induced lung inflammation after the virus challenge.

In the mice and in the human volunteers, the younger females, as expected, had higher bloodstream levels of estradiol, one of the important estrogens, compared to the older, post-menopausal females.

Similarly, the younger males had higher bloodstream levels of testosterone compared to the older males.

A stronger vaccine response was linked to higher estradiol among the females and, more weakly, to lower testosterone among the younger males.

Klein and her colleagues found evidence that this association with sex hormone levels was causal.

Removing the ovaries and testes of the mice to cut down estradiol and testosterone production eliminated the male/female differences in vaccine responses.

When the scientists then artificially resupplied estradiol to some of the low-hormone female mice, the mice showed greater vaccine antibody responses.

By contrast, resupplying testosterone to the castrated males caused them to have lower antibody responses.

“What we show here is that the decline in estrogen that occurs with menopause impacts women’s immunity,” Klein says.

“Until now, this hasn’t been considered in the context of a vaccine.

These findings suggest that for vaccines, one size doesn’t fit all – perhaps men should get larger doses, for example.”

She and her colleagues are now investigating the molecular mechanisms by which estradiol and other estrogens boost the antibody response to vaccines.


Aging of the Immune System

With age, there is a progressive functional decline in the immune system (17) that is assumed to occur equally in males and females. One of the most well characterized attributes of an aging immune system is an aberrant chronic low-grade pro-inflammatory state (16), which may occur to a greater extent in females than in males (40).

The activity of innate immune cells that are associated with inflammation, including dendritic cell (DC) subsets, macrophages, and neutrophils, also becomes dysregulated with age (21560112).

While inflammatory responses are necessary to orchestrate responses that clear pathogens and repair tissues, dysregulation or chronicity of inflammatory responses can contribute to tissue damage and disease.

Data from animal models as well as humans further show that aging is associated with dysregulated T-cell function, including reduced clonal diversity of naive CD4+ T cells (79), increased frequency of central memory T cells, reduced frequency of effector memory CD4+ T cells (62), reduced clonal diversity of CD8+ T cells (76), and increased frequency of effector memory and effector CD8+ T cells (56).

Aging is also associated with changes in B-cell function. Older-aged individuals have decreased clonal diversity of B cells and antibody production compared with younger-aged individuals (4497). These immunological changes provide partial basis for the distinct vaccine recommendations for the aged population. The current U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC) recommended vaccinations for individuals 60 years and older include 

1) the annual trivalent inactivated influenza vaccine at high dose; 

2) the zoster vaccine; 

3) a booster of the pneumococcal vaccine; and 

4) a booster of the tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis vaccines. Other vaccines may be recommended depending on childhood vaccination history and risk of exposure (http://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/adults/rec-vac/).Go to:

Sex Differences in Immune Function

There exists a growing body of literature illustrating that both innate and adaptive immune responses differ between the sexes following exposure to immunological stimuli, but this is currently not considered in the design or dosing of recommended vaccinations at any age.

In both humans and preclinical animal models, most studies typically utilize young adults, with little to no consideration of whether sex differences in immune function change over the course of life.

Innate immune responses differ between the sexes, at least among young adults.

Studies conducted using young adult mice illustrated that the activity of pattern recognition receptors (PRRs), production of inflammatory proteins (e.g., IFN-α, IFN-γ, TNF-α), antigen presentation, and phagocytic capacity of macrophages is reportedly higher in females than in males in response to diverse antigens and pathogens (926387790103111).

Whether these innate immune system differences between the sexes are still present in aged individuals has not been adequately addressed, but some data suggest that elevated production of inflammatory proteins in females compared with males persists among aged individuals (40).

Females also exhibit elevated humoral and cell-mediated immune responses to antigenic stimulation, vaccination, and infection than do males (38).

Both basal levels of immunoglobulin (Ig) (14) as well as antibody responses to viruses and vaccines are consistently higher in females than in males among both young and aged individuals (236566).

Men also reportedly have lower absolute CD3+ T-cell counts, absolute numbers of CD4+ T cells, CD4+-to-CD8+ T-cell ratios, and helper T-cell type 1 (Th1) responses (327108115).

Among older individuals, there are limited data indicating that reductions in adaptive immune responses with age, including numbers of T and B cells and cytokine production, are more dramatic in males than in females (51).Go to:

Vaccine Design Should Consider Both Sex and Age

Vaccination Rates are not Consistently Analyzed for Male-Female Differences Among Aged Individuals

Although some vaccines are widely distributed in the elderly population, the uptake of others is much less common. In the U.S., the seasonal influenza vaccine is routinely offered to persons 65 years of age and older, and 61% of this population is vaccinated, which is almost double the vaccination rate among young adults (2034115a).

Similarly, the vaccination rate for the pneumococcal vaccine is higher in the aged population (59.7%) compared with young adults (18.5%), whereas the rates of vaccination for the tetanus vaccine are similar between the aged and young adult populations at 53.4% and 64%, respectively (19).

Although the elderly have a higher uptake of both the seasonal influenza and pneumococcal vaccines, neither meets the target vaccination coverage rate of 90% in the U.S. (29a).

Sex-specific differences in the rate of vaccination for distinct vaccines have been reported in the elderly (Table 1). It is widely documented both in the U.S. and in several European countries that rates of vaccination for both the seasonal and pandemic influenza vaccines are greater for elderly males than for their female counterparts (48213335405998106).

In contrast, receipt of both the herpes zoster and pneumococcal vaccines tends to be higher among females than males (5470). To date, there are no studies that partition and analyze tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis (Tdap) or tetanus and diphtheria (Td) vaccination rates by sex.

Table 1

Sex differences in vaccination for the elderly

InfluenzaTetanus-Diphtheria-PertussisPneumococcalHerpes Zoster
SeasonalPandemic H1N1Td/TdapPPSV23/PCV13HZV
Recommended schedule1 dose/year1 dose Tdap + Td booster/10 yr1 dose 65+1 dose 65+
Vaccination rateM > FM > FM = FM = FF > M
Adverse reactionsF > MF > MF > MF > MF > M
Antibody responseF > MF > MM ≥ FM > FNA
EfficacyF > MF > MNAF > MF > M
References1011212325323537394049575863648183105107109742527410411312244795961011021145455

Td, tetanus and diphtheria; Tdap, tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis; PPSV23, pneumococcal polysaccharide vaccine against 23 types of pneumococcal bacteria; PCV13, pneumococcal conjugated vaccine against 13 types of pneumococcal bacteria; HZV, herpes zoster vaccine; F, females; M, males; NA, not available.

Multiple factors play a role in the acceptance of vaccines by aged individuals, including gender-associated differences in beliefs and general knowledge regarding vaccination (33).

Females report more adverse reactions to vaccination and have more concerns regarding vaccine safety and efficacy than males, which may contribute to the observed differences in the uptake of influenza vaccines among aged males and females (3340).

In other cases, a lack of public awareness about the availability and benefits of vaccines (e.g., the pneumococcal and herpes zoster vaccines) or a lack of partitioning and analysis of epidemiological data for sex differences (e.g., Tdap and Td) may result in a misconception that the receipt of vaccines is equivalent for males and females among aged individuals.

Adverse Reactions to Vaccines are Greater in Aged Females Than in Males

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved vaccines may elicit mild to moderate adverse reactions that include both local and systemic reactions.

Aged females consistently report more adverse reactions than males in response to the seasonal and pandemic influenza vaccines (102225323649575882), the pneumococcal vaccines (24101), the herpes zoster vaccine (55), and the tetanus and pertussis vaccines (742113).

While both males and females experience similar types of adverse reactions, the proportion of female vaccinees reporting local reactions, such as injection site pain, redness, and swelling, as well as systemic reactions, including joint or muscle pain, headache, back and abdominal pain, fever, chills, and hypersensitivity reactions is consistently greater than for males (Table 1).

Whether differences in adverse reactions among aged males and females reflect a gender-based reporting bias or a sex difference in inflammation has not been resolved. Data on adverse reactions to vaccines are typically collected through the U.S. Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS), which relies on passive reporting of adverse reactions. Thus females may be more likely to report adverse reactions to VAERS than males.

Limited analyses of local erythema and induration, which are measures of inflammation, at the site of seasonal influenza vaccination illustrate that aged females have significantly larger (≥6 mm) injection site reactions to the vaccine than their male counterparts (18).

Future studies must continue to develop methods for accurate assessment of the qualitative as well as the quantitative reactions to vaccines to better understand whether differences in adverse reactions to vaccines reflect a sex, gender, or both form of biases.

Furthermore, the impact of dose and route of administration on reducing adverse reactions in females has not been documented.

Antibody Responses to Vaccines Differ Between the Sexes Among Aged Individuals

Most vaccines provide protection through the induction of antibodies, which has historically been used as a relative correlate of protection (9192).

The magnitude of the antibody response to vaccines depends on many factors, including the age and sex of the vaccinee.

In general, antibody responses are lower in aged males and females compared with their younger adult counterparts (FIGURE 1) (295394). In some cases, this has resulted in reformulation of vaccines, such as the development of the high-dose influenza vaccine for annual vaccination of individuals 65 years and older, regardless of sex.

Sex differences in the antibody response depend on the specific vaccine (Table 1).

Aged females consistently have higher antibody responses to influenza vaccines than males (112337406364105).

As noted above, the high-dose seasonal influenza vaccine was introduced to overcome the overall lower antibody production in aged compared with young adults.

Sex differences in hemagglutination inhibition (HAI) antibody titers to either the standard-dose or high-dose influenza vaccine are apparent, in which antibody responses are significantly higher in older females than in males against each of the three influenza strains (H1N1, H3N2, and Influenza B) (37).

Similar to the seasonal influenza vaccines, older females were reported to have higher HAI antibody titers against the monovalent pandemic 2009 H1N1 (pH1N1) inactivated vaccine than males, resulting in a two to three times higher seroprotection and seroconversion rate in females than in males (63).

Although older females produced higher antibody responses to the pH1N1 vaccine, the avidity of their antibodies after pH1N1 vaccination was significantly lower than that of older males (64).

If higher avidity is a measure of a superior antibody response in the elderly, then these data suggest that the quality of the antibody response might be better for males than for females.

If females have lower antibody avidity than males, then this may suggest that cross-reactivity of antibody to novel strains of influenza is higher for aged females than males, which has been demonstrated in a murine model of heterosubtypic influenza challenge (71).

In contrast to influenza vaccines, aged males have higher antibody responses to both the pneumococcal vaccine and the Td/Tdap vaccines than females (71224424752749596104113).

In a study evaluating the immunogenicity of the 23-valent pneumococcal vaccine in nursing home residents, both pre- and post-vaccination IgG titers against all four serotypes analyzed were higher in males than in females (12).

In a similar study, when aged individuals were administered the 7-valent pneumococcal vaccine, males were found to have consistently higher levels of serotype-specific IgG both pre- and post-vaccination.

Antibody concentrations were 19% higher in males than in females 6 wk after the first dose, and 30% higher 6 wk after the second dose (47).

Few studies have analyzed antibody response to Tdap vaccines for sex-specific differences.

The available studies suggest that, although there are varying trends depending on the vaccine antigen and study population, males tend to have higher antibody titers to both tetanus and diphtheria than females (425274104).

This is in contrast to what has been reported for younger adults, in which females consistently have higher antibody titers than males in response to live attenuated, subunit, and inactivated vaccines, including the pneumococcal, influenza, yellow fever, rubella, measles, mumps, hepatitis A and B, herpes simplex 2, rabies, smallpox, and dengue vaccines (6699).

The lack of consistently higher antibody responses among aged females compared with males may be caused by both biological and social differences between the sexes.

The dose of a vaccine may also contribute to the difference in antibody response, since high doses of a vaccine could potentially mask or reverse sex-specific differences in the immune response.

Historically, if aged males ever served in the military, then they will likely have higher rates of immunization than females who were not in the military (4245). Similarly, females of child-bearing age have only been able to participate in phase 1 and 2 clinical trials since 1977, which may also explain the bias for a higher number of men willing to participate in vaccine trials (100).

Data from influenza vaccines are a notable exception because these vaccines are administered annually and, therefore, present the largest body of literature from which to analyze sex- and age-based differences in the correlates of vaccine protection.

Vaccine Efficacy is Greater for Aged Females Than for Males

Vaccine efficacy refers to the percent reduction in disease incidence in a vaccinated population under ideal conditions (110).

Efficacy is measured in randomized, controlled clinical trials where there is active monitoring of disease, vaccination status, and lab confirmation of the infection.

In addition, efficacy studies often include monitoring hospitalization, medical visits, and mortality (110).

Vaccine efficacy is often misinterpreted as vaccine effectiveness, which refers to the ability of a vaccine to prevent disease in a population-wide, real-world setting.

Following receipt of influenza vaccines, vaccine efficacy is typically measured by hospitalization and mortality rates post-vaccination.

Most studies of influenza vaccine efficacy, however, do not disaggregate data by sex. Among older community-dwelling adults in Taiwan that received the standard seasonal influenza vaccine, higher HAI titers were associated with lower rates of hospitalization and mortality in females than males in logistic regression models, suggesting that the efficacy of the influenza vaccine in older adults might be higher for females (109).

Vaccine effectiveness, as measured as all-cause mortality, was also measured in a large study of community-dwelling elderly in Spain and was higher in seasonal influenza-vaccinated aged females than males (107).

During the 1989-1990 influenza epidemic in England, a review of over 10,000 elderly patient records revealed that vaccination was better at preventing mortality in aged females than males (39).

Finally, several large studies have been conducted that include elderly patients across the U.S. and that span over multiple influenza seasons where the vaccine effectiveness at reducing mortality is consistently higher among females than males (8183).

Unlike the influenza vaccines, sex differences in vaccine efficacy in the elderly have only been measured in a modest number of studies for the herpes zoster and pneumococcal vaccines, and not at all for the Td/Tdap vaccines.

In a retrospective study examining the hospitalization rate among vaccinated individuals between 2005 and 2009 in Germany, the proportion of hospitalizations due to herpes zoster infection was higher in males compared with females (55). Another large study examined all deaths registered on U.S. death certificates reporting any pneumococcal infection from 1968 to 2006.

Data obtained from this study indicated that, following the introduction of the 23-valent pneumococcal vaccine in 1983, there was a significant reduction in mortality, especially in white females over the age of 65 (102).

Another study examined the effectiveness of the 23-valent pneumococcal vaccine at preventing Streptococcus pneumoniae community-acquired pneumonia (SpCAP) in the elderly and showed that there were significantly fewer females who were hospitalized with confirmed cases of SpCAP than males (data extracted from both the U.S. and Europe) (114). Overall, vaccine efficacy tends to be higher in elderly females than in males (Table 1), although the measurement of efficacy and effectiveness for each vaccine can be different. Increased analysis and reporting of sex differences in vaccine efficacy as well as defining the absolute correlates of protection and determining whether these measures of protection differ between the sexes is required for future studies.


More information: Tanvi Potluri et al. Age-associated changes in the impact of sex steroids on influenza vaccine responses in males and females, npj Vaccines (2019). DOI: 10.1038/s41541-019-0124-6

Provided by Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health

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