Measles limits immune system's ability to fight off other infections, studies suggest

Measles Wipes Your Immune System's Memory, Increasing Vulnerability To Other Dangerous Diseases

Measles has a stealth side effect: New research shows it erases much of the immune system's memory of how to fight other germs, so children recover only to be left more vulnerable to bugs like flu or strep.

The two studies used blood samples collected from 77 unvaccinated children in an Orthodox Protestant community in the Netherlands, before and after the children contracted the measles virus during a local outbreak.

Normally, when we're exposed to an infection, the immune system's antibody factory kicks into high gear to recognize, remember and defend against a pathogen if it comes along again by making lots of fighter cells.

This means a child may be more vulnerable to illnesses they had previously developed an immunity to following infection with the measles virus.

The study 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.

Measles isn't just deadly - the disease also can cause long-term damage to a person's immune system, according to research published this week in journal Science Immunology.

These findings reinforce the importance of vaccination against measles, Elledge said.

Mina and Elledge both suggested doctors may want to consider re-vaccinating children and perhaps even adults who have been infected with measles.

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".

This year saw the largest outbreak of measles in the US since 1994, with 1,250 cases reported as of October 3, largely driven by families choosing not to vaccinate their kids.

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In the first three months of this year, the number of cases quadrupled from the same period in 2018, World Health Organization data show.

Scientists have been aware of the hypothetical notion of immune amnesia for several years now, particularly in relation to early childhood measles infections.

Michael Mina, research assistant professor of epidemiology at Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, stresses that "so far this is the best evidence that there is an immune amnesia that impacts the memory of the immune system in the long term".

"You have this really rapid [antibody] decline with measles, and then a slow increase", he said.

"For the first time, we see that measles resets the immune system and it becomes more baby-like, limiting how well it can respond to new infections". The vaccine's emergence cut measles cases by 80% between 2000 and 2017 and is credited with saving 21.1 million lives.

Future research, Petrova says, will focus on learning how, exactly, measles-"an immunological paradox"-manages this feat. And that generates a situation which is 'immune amnesia'".

In the related Science study, researchers analyzed the kids' antibody activity before and after measles infection, and found that, two months after recovery, they had lost up to 73% of their antibody diversity.

In one study, they sequenced antibody genes from 26 children, before and then 40 to 50 days after measles infection, and found that specific antibodies that had been built up against other diseases had disappeared from the children's blood.

'This finding emphasizes how the MMR vaccine protects against more than just measles, ' says Velislava Petrova, an immunologist at the Wellcome Sanger Institute in Hinxton, UK, who led the Science Immunology study. "Because it was observed that there was less incidence of other viral and bacterial pathologies", explains Ruth Figueroa belonging to the OSI Bilbao-Basurto Microbiology and Infection Control Service of the Basque Country and president of theVaccine Working Group of the Spanish Society of Infectious Diseases and Clinical Microbiology (Seimc). And while the total number of antibodies circulating in the blood did not decrease, the range of diseases those antibodies could detect dwindled. A new analysis of 77 unvaccinated children from the Netherlands carried out by an global team of researchers led by scientists at Harvard has found that the virus erases the body's memory of previous pathogens - effectively wiping its immunity memory. "Hopefully these families will be willing to continue to be involved with the researchers", he says. In other words, while measles survivors struggle to defend themselves against other pathogens, their bodies can fend off a repeat attack by the measles virus itself. "But kids on the edge-such as those with severe measles infection or immune deficiencies or those who are malnourished-will be in serious trouble". "We show that measles directly causes the loss of protection to other infectious diseases".

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