BACKGROUND : While successes have been achieved in reducing global exposure to lead, few studies have investigated the potential health effects of low-level exposure (e.g. blood lead levels [BLLs] below the CDC reference level of 5 μg/dL), particularly among children from low- and middle-income countries. In addition, lead is immunotoxic in animals but human data on immune response to vaccines is limited. Our aim was to determine whether low-level exposure to lead is associated with humoral response to vaccines among rural South African children.
METHODS : We used data from the Venda Health Examination of Mothers, Babies and their Environment (VHEMBE), a birth cohort study conducted in Limpopo, South Africa. BLLs were measured in whole blood collected at age 1 year and IgG titers for measles, tetanus and Haemophilus influenzae type B (Hib) were determined at age 3.5 years among 425 fully-vaccinated children.
RESULTS : BLLs were low (median = 1.90 μg/dL) and 94% of children had a BLL below 5 μg/dL. Overall, BLLs were associated with higher risks of having IgG titers below the protective limit for tetanus (RR = 1.88 per 10-fold increase; 95%CI = 1.08, 3.24) but not measles (RR = 1.02; 95%CI = 0.26, 3.95) or Hib (RR = 0.96; 95%CI = 0.54, 1.71). BLLs were also associated with low Hib IgG titers among children exposed to HIV in utero and with low measles IgG titers among females. In contrast, the association with measles IgG titers was positive among males.
CONCLUSION : Low-level exposure to lead may compromise the humoral response to vaccines. Children exposed to HIV in utero and females may be particularly susceptible.