Measles Virus Completely Wipes Out Your Immune System, Studies Find

"Imagine that your immunity against pathogens is like carrying around a book of photographs of criminals, and someone punched a bunch of holes in it.”
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profile picture of Nehal Aggarwal
Published November 5, 2019
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Image: Kidsada Manchinda / Getty Images

Every parent wants to keep their child as healthy as possible, but there can be a lot of questions around how to best do so with all the misinformation out there. Now, two recent studies are emphasizing the importance of the measles vaccine through their findings on how exactly the virus impacts the immune system.

According to the studies published in the journals Science and Science Immunology, the measles virus actually has the power to erase the memory of the immune system, leaving us vulnerable to diseases we may have been previously protected against.

In one of the studies, researchers at Harvard Medical School (HMS) looked at blood samples from 77 kids before and two months after naturally getting the measles virus. They found that measles eliminated 11 to 73 percent of the antibodies present in individuals before infection, leaving them exposed to illnesses they had built an immunity to—and that included protection from other vaccinations. According to these findings, the researchers believe that measles may also cause an increase in other illnesses.

“Imagine that your immunity against pathogens is like carrying around a book of photographs of criminals, and someone punched a bunch of holes in it,” Michael Mina, one of the study’s primary authors, said in an HMS press release. “It would then be much harder to recognize that criminal if you saw them, especially if the holes are punched over important features for recognition, like the eyes or mouth.”

That’s not to say kids who recover from measles never regain the immunity they lost—they do, but only after reexposure to the illnesses they were protected against before, the study states.

“The threat measles poses to people is much greater than we previously imagined,” Stephen Elledge, senior author of the study and professor of genetics and medicine at HMS said in the release. “We now understand the mechanism is a prolonged danger due to erasure of the immune memory, demonstrating that the measles vaccine is of even greater benefit than we knew.”

The study believes the rise in measles is due to reduced vaccination, reporting that worldwide cases of measles have increased by almost 300 percent since 2018. According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), the two-dose measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine is safe and is 97 percent effective at preventing a measles infection.

With all the misinformation around vaccines out there, it can be hard for parents to cut through the noise. Speak with your healthcare provider and ask any questions you may have around keeping up to date on vaccines.

Please note: The Bump and the materials and information it contains are not intended to, and do not constitute, medical or other health advice or diagnosis and should not be used as such. You should always consult with a qualified physician or health professional about your specific circumstances.

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