Measles Makes Your Immune System Forget How to Fight Other Diseases

Laverne Higgins
November 8, 2019

The research, published in Science Immunology, also has implications for public health, as falling vaccination rates and resulting in rising cases of measles, which could also cause an increase in cases of other unsafe infections such as flu, diphtheria or tuberculosis, even in people who were previously immune.

Previous studies had suggested that the effects of measles might persist long after infection, suppressing the immune system, Elledge said.

The experiments were only possible because 77 families of unvaccinated children in the Netherlands agreed to donate blood samples after they were infected in a measles outbreak in 2013.

Those antibodies are the blood proteins that "remember" past encounters with viruses and help the body avoid repeat infections.

According to the researchers, the findings explain why children often succumb to other infectious diseases after they have had measles and highlights the importance of getting vaccinated against measles.

The team's current work was published simultaneously with a paper by a separate team in Science Immunology that reached complementary conclusions by measuring changes in B cells caused by the measles virus.

"It's doubly important to vaccinate children", agreed Dr. Mark Mulligan of NYU Langone Health, who wasn't involved with the new research.

As such, geneticist Stephen Elledge of Harvard Medical School told NPR we should think of the measles vaccine "like a seat belt for your immune system".

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more about the measles. That number plummeted in the following decades - in 2000, when the disease was declared eliminated from the United States, just 86 cases were reported. The studies each investigated different branches of the immune system, and both found evidence to support the immune amnesia hypothesis.

Measles, research has found, is even more risky thus making the vaccine much more valuable. All children have immune cells which have learned to recognise viruses and bacteria, from pneumonia to TB, whether they have come across them or been vaccinated with traces of them.

After measles, some children still show signs of immune suppression for up to five years although they appear healthy when their white blood cell counts are measured. The discoveries additionally fill in as an update that the current year's record-breaking measles flare-ups in the US will have waiting impacts, Schaffner included.

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Sadarangani called it "incredible" how measles infection profoundly affects parts of the immune system similar to powerful immunosuppressive drugs.

Scientists have shown how measles causes long-term damage to the immune system, leaving people vulnerable to other infections.

"But the other side of the coin was that maybe actually the vaccine was unmasking a much worse immunological detriment or problem associated with measles", he says. The team also collected blood samples from 33 children before and after their first vaccination against measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR).

"The immune cells that normally would recognize new pathogens - they become restricted in their ability to respond" after recovering from measles, says Velislava Petrova of the Wellcome Sanger Institute, the lead author of the Science Immunology paper.

Within 40-55 days, the children had regained new B-cells, but the researchers say it's unclear how effective these new cells are at fighting off infections they haven't seen before. And because only two of 26 patients showed these results, researchers need a much larger study on a diverse population for a sense of how prevalent it is, or if it even shows up in other groups of people.

These researchers analyzed the kids' antibodies using a test that measures the amount, and the strength, of antibodies against thousands of viral and bacterial substances. Trillions of antibodies can be found in every 3 ounces (1 microliter) of blood, Mina said.

After catching the virus, children lost between 11% and 72% of their total antibody diversity, indicating that measles had partially wiped their immune memory.

The measles vaccine does not have this depletion effect, the researchers say. "But we had a very hard time detecting measles", he says.

"This study yet again dispels the unsafe 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.

"He just sent a one-line sentence that said: 'It's amusing, we saw a big drop in antibodies to everything other than measles, '" Mina says.

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