Measles virus wipes part of the immune system's memory

Grant Boone
November 1, 2019

This year saw the largest outbreak of measles in the US since 1994, with 1,250 cases reported as of October 3, largely driven by families choosing not to vaccinate their kids. This means measles survivors can remain susceptible to unsafe diseases - such as the flu and pneumonia - for years to come, despite having weathered their initial illness.

Some families choosing not to vaccinate argue that measles is just a pesky childhood illness to be endured.

Measles can be prevented with two doses of a vaccine that has been proven to be safe and effective and has been in use since the 1960s. The same thing happened as the vaccine was introduced around the world.

The vaccine offers powerful protection but a lack of access means measles remains rampant in many lower-income countries.

Results from the second study found that measles infection destroyed between 11 percent and 73 percent of the children's protective antibodies - the blood proteins that "remember" past encounters with viruses and help the body avoid repeat infections - leaving them vulnerable to infections they had previously been immune to. "It takes three to five years for the immune system to recover from it". "And that generates a situation which is 'immune amnesia'".

"If you took the first 10 years of somebody having HIV and you squished that into a few weeks, that's the kind of memory damage and immune damage you get from measles", Mina, an assistant professor of epidemiology at Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health, told STAT.

Of them, 77 went on to develop measles.

"This study yet again dispels the risky myths perpetuated by homeopaths and other "natural" healers who claim that exposure of infants to natural infection is important to "strengthen" children's immune systems", writes endocrinologist Nikolai Petrovsky from Flinders University. "But we had a very hard time detecting measles", he says.

A separate study, published Thursday in Science Immunology, supported the findings.

Petrova explains how the vaccine works: "For vaccines like the vaccine against measles we have live attenuated virus, which means that we present to the immune system an entire, various components of a virus, but the virus cannot infect cells".

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These findings suggest this could possibly be greater if indirect effects were counted, she said.

To confirm that the decrease in cell diversity would translate into a weaker immune response, Petrova's team conducted an experiment in ferrets.

Elledge, Mina and colleagues found that those who survive measles gradually regain their previous immunity to other viruses and bacteria as they get re-exposed to them. "But would they have gotten it if they hadn't gotten measles?".

SOURCES: Stephen Elledge, Ph.D., professor of genetics, Harvard Medical School, Boston, and investigator, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Chevy Chase, Md.; Amesh Adalja, M.D., senior scholar, Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, Baltimore; Oct. 31. Due to the measles virus, many of these cells "know", the body has the diseases are less of a good fight. Or, as Mina puts it, "measles seems to be punching holes in the immune memory".

Scientists say measles selectively and exclusively infects humans. "We've been able to show that the effects are vast and impact nearly all pathogens that somebody has seen".

The results reinforce the importance of vaccinating children against measles, Russell says. "You get the best of both worlds with the vaccine", Wesemann says.

For this research, the two teams looked at a group of unvaccinated people in the Netherlands to find out what measles does to the immune system.

"The measles vaccine is really a superhero", he says.

To spell it out more plainly: If parents elect not to vaccinate their children against measles, they not only risking a one-time battle with a disease that caused 2.6 million deaths per year globally before the vaccine became available; they're also risking crippling their child's immune system and preventing them from fighting off diseases they had already built immunity against.

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