Measles weakens your immune system for years

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  Last updated June 5, 2020 at 5:42 pm


Measles is no harmless or mild infection. New research shows it can cause long-term harm to your immune system. Vaccinate.

girl getting vaccinated vaccinated measles

The immune system can be knocked about for years following a measles infection, but not a vaccination. Credit: Heather Hazzan/SELF Magazine

Why This Matters: Seriously? We still have to tell people to vaccinate?

As Aussie cases of measles surge, it looks like the disease may be even more dangerous than we thought, with two new studies showing that catching measles can cripple your immune system for years.

The first study, published in Science and led by Harvard Medical School‘s Dr Michael Mina, examined the blood of 77 unvaccinated children before and after measles infection. They found that measles wiped out between 11 and 73 per cent of the antibodies they had build up over the years – effectively causing a type of ‘amnesia’ in the immune system that can last years.

The second was published in Science Immunology and looked at antibody genes from 26 children, before and after their measles infection. The scientists found that specific immune memory cells that had built up in response to other diseases disappeared from the children’s blood after measles infection.

Deeper: How measles impacts your immune system

Dr Velislava Petrova, lead author from the Wellcome Sanger Institute and Cambridge University said:

“This study is a direct demonstration in humans of ‘immunological amnesia’, where the immune system forgets how to respond to infections encountered before. We show that measles directly causes the loss of protection to other infectious diseases.”

Increased risk of other infections

Professor Raina MacIntyre from UNSW Sydney, who was not involved in the study, told the AusSMC that this means people who get measles are at increased risk of other infections after they recover.

“This research strengthens the evidence that measles infection cripples the immune system even after recovery from measles. Specifically, the ability of the body to produce antibodies to any infections (not just measles) is impaired,” she said.

Importantly, while the research showed that measles infection could cause this ‘immune amnesia’, measles vaccination did not.

boy smiling after vaccination measles

This kid did the right thing. You should too. Credit: Heather Hazzan/SELF Magazine

Busts the myth of natural infections “strengthening” immune systems

Professor Nikolai Petrovsky from Flinders University said this lends weight to arguments against the dangerous myth that exposing infants to natural infection is important to ‘strengthen’ their immune systems.

“Not only does this study highlight the stupidity of such practices, but also the extreme dangers posed,” he said, pointing out that measles infection will weaken rather than strengthen kids’ immune systems.

Deeper: Measles: what you need to know

The researchers say their study has huge implications for vaccination and public health as it shows that not only does measles vaccination protect people from measles, it also protects them from other infectious diseases.

Vaccine is even more beneficial than we thought

Professor Petrovsky agreed that this almost certainly explains why people infected with measles have an increased rate of sickness and death for up to five years after infection, compared to people who have not had measles.

The scientists behind the study say their work shows the measles vaccine is even more beneficial than we thought, and urge widespread vaccination. In Australia, as well as the unvaccinated, many people are also under-vaccinated without realising it, as those born between 1966 and 1990 may have not had the recommended two doses of the measles vaccine.

Professor Ian Frazer FAA, from the University of Queensland, said that two doses of the MMR vaccine provided lifelong protection.

“Check your vaccination records and, if in doubt about whether you’ve had two doses, speak with your GP. It is safe to have another MMR vaccine if you don’t have evidence of a second dose. This ensures you’ve got the best possible protection.”

You can read all the expert comments in full here

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About the Author

Lyndal Byford
Lyndal is the Director of News and Partnerships at the Australian Science Media Centre. She spends her days turning complex science papers into tasty morsels to help news journalists cover science. Lyndal has an Honours Degree in Biotechnology from Flinders University and a Graduate Diploma in Science Communication from the Australian National University. She has spent the last 20 years communicating science in a range of settings including science museums, within the pharmaceutical industry and in media relations both here and in the UK. Lyndal regularly speaks about science on ABC Radio National and 2CC in Canberra. Lyndal was also a member of Inspiring Australia’s Science and the Media Expert working group for the Federal Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research.

Published By

The Australian Science Media Centre (AusSMC) is an independent, not-for-profit service for the news media, giving journalists direct access to evidence-based science and expertise. We aim to better inform public debate on the major issues of the day by improving links between the media and the scientific community. The Centre works with journalists to help them cover science as well as identify the science angles in everyday news stories and works with the scientific community to help them interact more effectively with the media and ensure that their voices are heard on issues of national importance.

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