Why Is Measles So Bad?

Researchers recently found that measles infection may give you “immune amnesia,” meaning that all the immunity you gained up to the point you got measles may be wiped out with the infection. If you understand the way in which the measles virus enters, multiplies and evades the immune system to cause disease, then this finding makes sense.

According to the New York Times:

“Measles is far more dangerous than most people realize, new research shows.

The disease itself can cause a severe and sometimes deadly illness, but two new studies published on Thursday found that even when patients recover, the virus can inflict lasting harm on their immune systems.

The weakened immunity leaves a child vulnerable for several years to other dangerous infections like flu and pneumonia. The damage occurs because the virus kills cells that make antibodies, which are crucial to fighting off infections.

Scientists call the effect “immune amnesia.” During childhood, as colds, flu, stomach bugs and other illnesses come and go, the immune system forms something akin to a memory that it uses to attack those germs if they try to invade again. The measles virus erases that memory, leaving the patient prone to catching the diseases all over again.

The findings make the need for measles vaccination even more urgent, because it protects children against much more than measles, the researchers said.

In fact if a person who has received vaccinations for other diseases contracts measles, it may wipe out the protection those vaccines had provided. Revaccination could help restore the child’s immunity, the researchers said.

The second study, by a different team, was published in Science Immunology.

“This is wonderful science,” said Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University, who was not involved in the research. “These are two wonderfully complementary studies that have provided a basic immunologic understanding of a phenomenon that has been recognized for a long time, mainly that measles infection causes immune suppression.”

The studies arrive at a time of heightened concern about measles, as outbreaks flare up in the United States and other developed countries where vaccines had largely eradicated the disease, but where a growing number of parents have begun to refuse vaccination. Some claim religious reasons, and some mistakenly fear a link to autism, based on research that has been discredited as fraudulent.”

So how does measles work? The educators and animators at the educational site Kurzgesagt — In a Nutshell made this video to describe the process of measles infection to disease and what it does to the immune system:

The part that is startling is how measles hijacks the very cells that are supposed to defend us from infection and uses them to spread far and wide. No wonder measles causes millions of infections and tens of thousands of deaths worldwide. Most deaths are in developing countries, but more developed nations are seeing an increase in deaths directly attributable to increased cases from vaccine hesitancy.

Author: René F. Najera, DrPH

I am the editor of the History of Vaccines site, an online project by the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. All opinions expressed on these blog posts are not necessarily those of the College or any of my employers. Check out my professional profile on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/renenajera Feel free to follow me on Twitter: @EpiRen

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