Measles Can Erase Immune System’s Memory, Resulting in Other Infections, Study Finds

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November 5, 2019

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Measles is one of the most contagious viruses in the world, and beyond flu-like symptoms and a rash that begins in the head area, measles can develop serious or deadly complications, such as pneumonia and encephalitis (swelling of the brain).

Now, researchers have found that measles can present yet another danger, particularly to children. A new study found that the measles virus can essentially turn off the body’s immune system, making people more susceptible to other illnesses later.

This condition, known as “immune amnesia,” appears to erase the body’s immune memory, according to the new study published in Science. Researchers found that the measles virus can destroy an average of 40 of the antibodies against other viruses and bacteria that participants in the study built up before they were afflicted with measles. Essentially, this means that people who get measles are more susceptible to other illnesses, including pneumonia, flu, and skin infections — and this immune suppression can last for years.

Researchers “found that measles infection can greatly diminish previously acquired immune memory, potentially leaving individuals at risk for infection by other pathogens,” the study’s authors stated. “These adverse effects on the immune system were not seen in vaccinated children.”

The study comes in the wake of the largest outbreak of measles in the U.S. since 1994, with 1,250 cases reported so far this year, as of Oct. 3. In 2017, measles killed 110,000 people worldwide and infected 6.7 million. About 1 in 5 unvaccinated people in the U.S. who get measles need to be hospitalized, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). “Immune amnesia” is likely why the majority of deaths and complications are caused by infections people acquire after measles, researchers say.

Reaffirms Importance of Vaccinations
The latest findings intensifies the importance of getting vaccinated against the measles virus. Part of the recommended MMR shot, which combines immunity protection against measles, mumps and rubella, the vaccine does not cause serious side effects, despite pockets of anti-vaccination movements across the U.S., according to physicians and public health officials.

“Vaccination is the best prevention,” said Fernando Mendoza, M.D., medical director of the Children’s Emergency Center at Baptist Children’s Hospital and associate medical director of Pediatric Emergency Services at West Kendall Baptist Hospital.  “Absolutely, 100 percent, that’s the best way to prevent it. Vaccinated kids don’t get the measles. There are reams and reams of data that show these vaccines are appropriate and effective.”

Dr. Mendoza said parents should follow up with their pediatricians or primary care physicians to get their children protected if they haven’t been vaccinated.

“Most viruses in most kids will run their course and they will get better on their own,” explains Dr. Mendoza. “But it’s when you get complications … that’s when about one in 20 kids with measles will develop pneumonia, and one to three kids in 1,000 cases will die from measles.”

The new findings were based on research led by Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s Michael Mina, a professor of epidemiology. Mr. Mina and colleagues looked at blood samples from 77 unvaccinated children in the Netherlands, taken both before and after a 2013 measles outbreak. The team found that, after getting measles, the children lost 11 to 73 percent of their infection-fighting antibodies. A group of 33 children who had been vaccinated didn’t lose antibodies.

The contagious nature of measles makes vaccinations even more vital, physicians and public health officials say. Measles spreads much the same way other viruses do, through sneezing, coughing or touching. In addition to vaccinations, hand-washing is considered the best protection from contracting any virus.

“When parents say no to getting a measles vaccine, you’re not just taking a risk of your kid getting measles, you’re causing them to lose this amazing resources of defenses they’ve built up over the years before measles, and that puts them at risk of catching other infections,” said Mr. Mina. “You’ve got to watch your kid’s back for a few more years.”

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