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Researchers say the measles virus can erase the immune system’s memory. Getty Images
  • Researchers say the measles virus can erase the immune system’s memory, making a person more vulnerable to other diseases.
  • Experts say the discovery underscores the importance of parents getting their children vaccinated.
  • Health officials said parents who don’t make wellness appointments with doctors for their children are more likely to not vaccinate their children.

One side of the vaccination debate is receiving what they consider to be a big influx of ammunition.

The measles virus reportedly causes long-term damage to the human immune system, effectively deleting the body’s defenses against other viruses.

That’s according to researchers from the Wellcome Sanger Institute in England, the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands, and other institutions.

The discovery was reported today in the journal Science Immunology.

According to doctors, the research adds to the importance of parents getting their children immunized.

The revelation explains why children often get other infectious diseases after having measles, and comes as declining immunization rates are causing a measles comeback.

Apparently, measles is bringing other diseases along for the ride.

“Measles is on a big upsurge throughout the world,” Amesh Adalja, MD, FIDSA, an infectious disease specialist and senior scholar at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told Healthline.

“Countries such as the U.K. have lost their (measles) elimination status, while the U.S. saw record numbers of cases — and narrowly avoided losing elimination status. Vaccine hesitancy has taken its toll on measles vaccine confidence, and the world is dealing with an infection that should have been controlled decades ago,” he said.

It was previously understood that measles weakens the immune system, but now researchers have determined how.

During a measles infection, a person has fewer protective white blood cells. After recovery a few weeks later, the white blood cell count goes back up. But now scientists know that person is still “much more susceptible to other infectious diseases,” according to the statement.

Researchers looked at a group of non-vaccinated people in the Netherlands, taken before and after a 2013 measles outbreak in their community.

After sequencing antibody genes from 26 children before their infection and then 40 to 50 days after their infection, the scientists found that specific immune memory cells built up against other diseases — and were present before the measles infection — vanished from the children’s blood, leaving them vulnerable to diseases to which they were once immune.

“This study is a direct demonstration in humans of ‘immunological amnesia,’ where the immune system forgets how to respond to infections encountered before,” Velislava Petrova, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow at the Wellcome Sanger Institute and the study’s lead author, said in a statement. “We show that measles directly causes the loss of protection to other infectious diseases.”

Researchers then tested the idea in ferrets, showing that a measles-like virus reduced flu antibodies in ferrets previously vaccinated against the flu. The ferrets had worse flu symptoms after having the measles-like virus.

The researchers discovered measles resets the immune system to an immature state, where it’s only able to make a limited number of antibodies.

Colin Russell, a professor of applied evolutionary biology at the University of Amsterdam, says measles makes the human immune system “baby-like.”

“In some children, the effect is so strong it is similar to being given powerful immunosuppressive drugs,” he said in a statement. “Our study has huge implications for vaccination and public health, as we show that not only does measles vaccination protect people from measles, but also protects from other infectious diseases.”

The measles vaccine was developed by John F. Enders and Dr. Thomas C. Peebles after they collected blood samples from people who had contracted the measles during a 1954 outbreak in Boston.

They licensed a vaccine in 1963. The inoculation was improved in 1968 by a team led by Maurice Hilleman. That version is still in use.

In 1978, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) established a goal to eliminate measles by 1982. While that didn’t happen, by 1981, reported cases were down 80 percent from the previous year.

The CDC was able to declare measles eliminated — no continuous transmission of the disease for at least 12 months — in 2000.

That was around the same time the anti-vaccination movement picked up steam, mostly in response to British doctor Andrew Wakefield’s 1998 suggestion that vaccinations cause autism.

Scientists have widely debunked the allegation. Wakefield’s medical license was revoked in 2010.

“This study confirms what had long been suspected about the cascading effects of measles infection,” Adalja said. “(It) shows it not to be a benign illness and underscores the need for the vaccine to prevent this sequela of infection.”

“This phenomenon (of measles damaging someone’s resistance to other diseases) likely explains how measles vaccination has outsized effects because, by preventing measles downstream, infections with other pathogens were prevented,” he added.

As of Oct. 3, there have been 1,250 individual cases of measles confirmed in 31 states in 2019.

According to the CDC, “This is the greatest number of cases reported in the U.S. since 1992. More than 75 percent of the cases this year are linked to outbreaks in New York. Measles is more likely to spread and cause outbreaks in U.S. communities where groups of people are unvaccinated.”

“The majority of cases are among people who were not vaccinated against the measles,” according to the CDC website.

The authors of the new study said in a statement that the increase in measles cases could bring an increase in other “dangerous infections, like flu, diphtheria or tuberculosis, even in people who were previously immune.”

“Pneumonia is the most common cause of death as a complication of measles,” Suman Radhakrishna, MD, an infectious diseases physician at CHA Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center in Los Angeles, told Healthline.

“Diarrhea is the most common complication. Measles-induced stomatitis and diarrhea can lead to malnutrition in children. Complications with secondary infection can cause lung damage, which is often permanent,” she said.

Doctors say the study shows that a measles immunization can mean so much more than just not getting measles.

“Discoveries such as these only highlight the critical need for all our children to be immunized,” said Sandra Elizabeth Ford, MD, the vice president of the National Association of County and City Health Officials.

“One could surmise from the study that if contracting measles results in diminished immune response to other diseases, then preventing measles provides a protective factor, not only from measles, but other infectious diseases as well,” she said.

Catherine Troisi, PhD, MS, an epidemiologist at UTHealth School of Public Health in Houston, says doctors have known for decades about a connection between measles and deaths from other infectious diseases.

“Childhood death rates, even before the vaccine was developed back in ’63, you could see an increase in deaths from other infectious diseases,” Troisi told Healthline.

“It’s not just effective against measles. Most kids do recover, but it can be serious. Measles was a major cause of death in developing countries. (After immunizations) there was a 50 to 90 percent decrease in deaths from other diseases in developing countries,” she said.

The growth of measles isn’t only fueled by philosophical differences between doctors and anti-vaccine parents.

According to the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association, “Failure to attend routine well-child visits” among commercially insured children is the predominant reason for 62 percent of under-vaccinated children from 2010 to 2016.

The association said in a statement that these children, now 3 to 9 years old, “are of elementary school age, putting them at greater risk when in close contact with other children in the classroom and increasing the likelihood of an outbreak.”

“On average, sufficiently vaccinated children completing the seven-vaccine series by 27 months of age had two more well-child visits than children who did not complete the series,” a Blue Cross Blue Shield report stated.