How the after-effects of measles could be even more serious than previously thought

New research proves that vaccination against measles is even more important than previously believed.
New research proves that vaccination against measles is even more important than previously believed.

The number of vaccine-hesitant people seems to be on the rise, and the debate between people who vaccinate and those who refuse to do so is growing more intense by the day.

Over the last few years, an increasing number of measles outbreaks worldwide have been ascribed to the growing number of "anti-vaxxers".

Measles is often regarded as a harmless childhood disease, but a new study suggests that the effect of the disease on children’s immune systems is much more serious than previously suspected.

What exactly is meant by by 'immune amnesia'?

According to the research teams, measles causes something called “immune amnesia”, which means that the virus destroys existing defences against pathogens that the body previously encountered. This means that the body becomes vulnerable to many infections.

Stephen Elledge, professor of genetics and medicine and Harvard Medical School, stated that the evidence that measles destroys the immune system is really strong, making it extremely important to get vaccinated against the disease. 

A news report stated that an analysis of blood from 77 unvaccinated children before and after measles revealed that the virus erased immunity against previous pathogens. Measles eliminated between 11% and 73% of protective antibodies that were built up during previous encounters with viruses.

This research was published 31 October 2019 in the journal Science.

Not just an innocent children’s illness

According to Elledge, measles, apart from being one of the most contagious viruses around. is a lot more harmful than ever suspected,

The measles virus is so contagious that, before the development of he first vaccine in 1963, it affected between three million and four million people per year in the United States alone.

Especially in the poorer parts of South Africa, measles used to take a high toll on children, but vaccination campaigns soon got the problem under control.  

As more and more people were vaccinated, the number of cases of measles plummeted worldwide, but with the growing resistance against vaccination, the disease is on the increase again. 

Serious birth complications

Besides destroying the existing immune system, there are a number of serious complications that can result from measles such as croup; pneumonia; damage to the eyes; seizures caused by high fever; and inflammation of the brain (encephalitis).

Encephalitis is very rare, but the risk increases as children grow older. It can be fatal and can appear weeks or even months after a bout of measles, especially in immune-compromised people.

When measles leaves the immune system compromised, people in developing countries like South Africa are more susceptible to other highly contagious communicable diseases such as tuberculosis.

And when pregnant women contract measles, it can lead to serious birth complications, and even miscarriage and stillbirth.

Vaccination – the only solution

The only recourse against measles is the vaccine known as MMR. Routine measles vaccination is given at nine and 15 months in South Africa. The vaccination at 15 months is given as a combined measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine, and a booster shot helps to give long-term immunity.

Dr Charlie Weller, Head of Vaccines at Wellcome, stated in a news report: "Measles is highly contagious and its potentially devastating consequences are well known. This study finds that measles also has the potential to weaken our body's existing immune response to other diseases, leaving us vulnerable to infections.

"These findings further strengthen the vital role the MMR vaccine plays in public health and protecting us from deadly disease. It is yet another reminder of how important vaccines are as a vital resource in eliminating infectious disease."

Elledge has one message he wants people to take away from the latest research: “Vaccinate your kids. Children who skip the measles vaccine and become infected may actually need to be revaccinated against previous diseases.”

Image credit: iStock

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