Nov 1, 2019
CNN – Measles can erase the immune system’s memory, leaving us vulnerable to diseases we were previously protected against, new research has found.
Two separate studies, published Thursday in the journals Science and Science Immunology, found that the highly contagious and potentially fatal measles virus can cause “immune amnesia,” removing antibodies that had protected patients from other illnesses.
Researchers from the Harvard Medical School, who led the Science study, examined blood samples from children before and after getting measles.
They found that the virus wipes out 11% to 73% of patients’ protective antibodies, putting them at greater risk of viral and bacterial strains they were previously immune to.
This means that measles can effectively undo the protection provided by vaccines against other infections like flu or even tuberculosis — and measles outbreaks can thus cause spikes in other illnesses.
Michael Mina, one of the study’s primary authors, in a Harvard Medical School press release, said:
“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. 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.”
Surviving measles patients do eventually regain these lost immunities — but they need to be re-exposed to the illnesses to build up those defenses.
It’s as if you had to meet the criminals missing from your book all over again, one by one — a long and risky process, during which you remain vulnerable to whatever these criminals want to inflict on you.
“The team showed for the first time that measles resets the human immune system back to an immature baby-like state with only limited ability to respond to new infections,” said a press release from the Wellcome Sanger Institute, which contributed to the Science Immunology study. Read more.