Researchers Are Testing a Vaccine for Toxic Shock Syndrome

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Photo: LOIC VENANCE

Austrian researchers have developed a vaccine for toxic shock syndrome (TSS) that was found to be safe and effective in a clinical trial.

Menstruating women have likely heard of TSS, but tampon-users aren’t the only people who get it; it can also develop after a nosebleed, infection, or surgery.

A primer: TSS is caused when the bacteria Staphylococcus aureus multiplies and produces a toxin. People can have staph A on and in their bodies: About 20 percent of people have it on their skin and more have it in their nose; it’s not known how many women have it in their vaginal flora. In order to multiply, the bacteria needs a good place to hang out — like, say, nosebleed packing or a tampon.

Some people’s immune systems can fight an onslaught of staph, but in others it can lead to a bacterial infection and life-threatening organ failure and sepsis. (Initial symptoms include sudden high fever, rash, muscle aches, diarrhea or vomiting, and confusion.)

Researchers from the Medical University of Vienna and an Austrian pharmaceutical company developed the vaccine from a detoxified Staphylococcus toxin; people who receive it develop antibodies to staph. They conducted a Phase I trial with 46 young women and men and determined that it was safe and effective. In the results published in the journal The Lancet Infectious Diseases, they wrote, “no vaccination-related severe or serious adverse events occurred.”

Vaccines are subject to three phases of clinical testing before facing the approval process and though they’ve already started Phase II, so we’re not exactly close to having a TSS vaccine on the market any time soon. But how many people would benefit from such a shot?

The researchers said blood tests can show whether a person is low in staph antibodies and risk groups could be vaccinated preventively. The high-absorbency tampons of the 1970s caused a wave of TSS cases, but it’s now considered a rare disease. In the United States, there have been fewer than 80 TSS cases per year since 2011, and experts estimate that fewer than half are linked to tampon use. While it’s not common, that doesn’t make it any less tragic when young women land in intensive care or lose a limb. Plus, people who’ve had TSS before are at risk of developing it in the future and are told not to use tampons.

Vaccine or not, women can reduce their risk by using the lowest absorbency tampons possible and changing them at least every eight hours. Going to sleep longer than that? Embrace the pad.