In Depth

Measles wipes out protection against other illnesses

New studies show that the virus makes the body forget how to fight illnesses

Two studies have shown that having measles could make it harder to battle other infections, years after contracting the illness.

The measles virus has been shown to cause “immune amnesia”, meaning that the body forgets how to fight illnesses it once knew how to beat.

The experts behind the study say that the findings show the importance of vaccinating against measles.

What is measles?

Measles is a virus that causes flu-like symptoms, including a runny nose, sneezing and fever, says the NHS.

Unlike flu, measles also causes a blotchy rash, which typically follows a few days after the flu-like symptoms. The rash normally starts off on the face and spreads across the body.

According to the University of Oxford’s Vaccine Knowledge Project, there were 966 laboratory-confirmed measles cases in England in 2018. This was an increase on 2016 and was likely due to a decrease in the number of people being vaccinated.

 In high income regions of the world, such as the UK, measles causes death in about 1 in 5,000 cases. But, in poorer regions, as many as 1 in 100 will die after contracting the virus. It is estimated that 110,000 people die from measles each year around the world.

How does measles wipe out immunity to other illnesses?

The BBC says that the new findings show that measles “resets the immune system to a ‘baby-like’ state”. This is caused by the measles virus infecting and destroying cells called B-cells. 

B-cells are a type of immune cell that store the antibody needed to defend the body against illnesses that it has already fought off before. 

Researchers at Harvard Medical School analysed blood samples from 77 children and, in one case, found that a child who had suffered from a severe measles infection lost 73% of the types of antibody they could produce.

Professor Stephen Elledge, a geneticist at Harvard Medical School and co-author of one of the papers, told The Guardian: “We’ve found really strong evidence that the measles virus is actually destroying the immune system.

“The threat measles poses to people is much greater than we previously imagined.”

How long does the damage last?

The studies focused only on the immediate aftermath of an infection. However, they were inspired by a study published in 2015 in the journal Science, which suggested children were more likely to die for two to three years after a measles infection.

What can you do to avoid measles?

Being immunised through a vaccination programme almost eliminates the risk of catching measles. This is done through the MMR vaccine, which is given as part of the routine NHS childhood vaccination programme in the UK.

A dose of the MMR vaccine can also be given to anyone over six months of age if they’re at immediate risk of catching measles. 

This could include circumstances in which there has been an outbreak of measles in your local area, you have been in close contact with someone who has measles or you are planning on travelling to an area where the infection is widespread. 

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