The measles vaccine has proven to have beneficial effects beyond direct prevention of the disease itself.

Measles vaccinations might be the key to higher child survival rates in low- to middle-income countries.

A recent study published in the journal Frontiers in Public Health reports that testing conducted on 38,333 children in the West African country of Ghana indicates that all-cause mortality is significantly lower in children who received measles vaccinations after receiving a course of the diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis (DTP) vaccine.

Epidemiologists, or disease-tracking scientists, use the term “all-cause mortality” to describe death from any cause.

Measles, tuberculosis, diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, and poliomyelitis are labeled as “killer diseases” by the World Health Organization (WHO).

They have been targeted over decades for eradication through mass immunization programs. Previous studies indicate that routine vaccines against these diseases can save millions of young lives.

Timing of vaccinations

The sequence of administering vaccines appears to be key to the positive outcome of measles vaccination in the Ghana study.

Child mortality was lower when the measles vaccine came after the third DTP vaccination (DTP3), compared to administering it before or together with DTP.

Over a 17-year period, the Navrongo Health and Demographic Surveillance system of the Navrongo Health Research Centre in Ghana followed the 38,333 children to compare mortality between those vaccinated against measles after the DTP vaccine and those who weren’t vaccinated against measles.

Survival rates for measles-vaccinated children increased by 28 percent in the first 12 months of follow-up and by 18 percent at 5 years of age.

“It may be that measles infection is eliminated in the near future and thus measles vaccination is de-emphasized,” said Paul Welaga, PhD, one of the principals in the study. “But if the non-specific beneficial effects of measles vaccination are indeed positive, then we should consider continued vaccination even if measles is eradicated.”

Children in the United States

Measles is a highly contagious respiratory disease that attacks the lungs and breathing tubes, causing a rash and fever.

In most cases, children suffer through the contingencies of measles and survive. However, in rare cases, the disease can be deadly. In extreme situations, measles can cause pneumonia, lifelong brain damage, deafness, and death.

In the United States, children have been receiving routine measles, mumps, rubella (MMR) vaccinations since the 1960s. In fact, all 50 states require that children entering day care or kindergarten receive DTP and MMR vaccinations.

Children who have a history of allergic reaction to these vaccines are exempt. In a few states, parents may opt out of vaccinating their children for personal or religious beliefs.

“Measles are a significantly higher hazard to children from areas such as Ghana where the results of the disease are much more severe,” Dr. William Schaffner, professor of preventive medicine and infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, told Healthline.

“In the Western Hemisphere, the two-dose measure of MMR vaccinations has been so successful that there are no reported cases of indigenous measles reported from northern Canada to Terra del Fuego in Argentina,” Schaffner said.

“Imported measles cases are another matter,” Schaffner noted, “and it is important to keep the results of the Ghana study in perspective.”

Travelers from countries where measles is still common continue to bring the disease into the United States, Schaffner explained.

In 2014, the United States experienced 667 cases of measles in 27 states, the greatest number of reported cases since 2000, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases (NCIRD).

Agency officials reported that the majority of the people who got measles during this time were unvaccinated and that travelers from countries where measles is still common continue to bring the disease into the United States.

Researchers say the Ghana study indicates that measles vaccination can save thousands of lives in developing nations.

They add that although the impact is barely felt in the United States, the study underscores the importance of timely vaccinations for children worldwide.