Vaccine-preventable viral diseases

Monitoring viral diseases which can be avoided by vaccination

We focus on laboratory research and surveillance of viral diseases which can be prevented by vaccination. For this, we collaborate closely with our fellow colleagues from the service ‘Epidemiology of infectious diseases’. To stop the transmission of a virus, it is crucial to obtain a high vaccine coverage and immunisation in the population. The more people are successfully immunised, the better we can fully erase the disease. A high vaccine coverage also allows to protect vulnerable people with a weakened immune system – which responds poorly to vaccines – and who are at risk of developing complications upon infection.

Our laboratory focuses on viruses for which the government has put in place large-scale vaccination programs, in order to control or eliminate certain diseases in the population (measles and rubella, for instance). We develop expertise for the laboratory diagnosis of these viral diseases. We monitor the different genotypes in circulation in order to understand the dynamics of the disease and to monitor outbreaks. We examine whether vaccine strains are still suited to offer protection against the prevailing strains circulating in the population and give advice to update vaccine strains when needed. Our research projects focus on vaccine efficiency and on the mechanisms of vaccine failure.

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Our team hosts the National Reference Centre for Measles, Mumps and Rubella, the National Reference Centre for Human Papillomaviruses and the National Reference Centre for Hepatitis Viruses.

As the National Reference Centre for Measles, Mumps and Rubella, we assist the authorities in their ambitious goal to eliminate measles and rubella in Belgium and Europe by 2020. Our laboratory investigates possible cases of measles or rubella and studies the genetic characteristics of the viruses causing outbreaks. We provide valuable information on the source of an outbreak and are able to trace the chain of infection. We are also investigating the reasons why mumps outbreaks can still occur among vaccinated adolescents.

The National Reference Centre for Human Papillomaviruses (consortium with AML (Algemeen Medisch Labo, Antwerp) and UZ Gent (Universitair Ziekenhuis Gent)) closely monitors the impact of vaccination of teen girls on the prevalence of different types of papillomaviruses among women. Certain types of human papillomaviruses are considered as the main cause of cervical cancer. We also measure the occurrence of different types of papillomaviruses involved in other types of cancer, including certain anal, genital and oral cancers. We develop techniques to detect and characterise a large variety of papillomaviruses.

As the National Reference Centre for Hepatitis Viruses (consortium with Cliniques Universitaires St-Luc), we actively monitor outbreaks of hepatitis A virus and study the enigmatic epidemiology of hepatitis E virus. We perform tests to confirm infection by hepatitis B, C, D and E viruses and determine the genetic characteristics of the isolates. Through genetic sequencing, we can monitor the appearance of resistance to antiviral treatments for hepatitis C virus, and identify the chains of transmission.

We also measure the overall efficiency of vaccination programs. To do so, we determine the level of protection (antibody levels) against different viruses (i.e. measles, mumps, rubella, HAV, HBV) in the overall population. We measure the percentage of immunised and non-immunised people, based on immunological blood tests in a sample representative of the Belgian population. These large-scale seroprevalence studies provide crucial information about the success and possible weaknesses of national immunisation campaigns.

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