Measles vaccine prevents other infectious diseases too

Photo: Jaimie Duplass

Photo: Jaimie Duplass

Measles is still a major cause of child deaths in parts of the world, although it is preventable with proper immunization. A new study suggests that the measles vaccine can help when it comes to other infectious diseases too. The way in which it works may surprise you.

Catching the measles virus leads to a phenomenon called “immune amnesia”. Our body’s immune system has a kind of memory in the sense that it can fight off a certain virus if we have been exposed to that particular virus before. That is also how a vaccine works. A vaccine will contain either a deactivated or a severely weakened dose of a virus, both of which are harmless, but which trigger your immune system to develop a resistance to the virus. The next time the virus enters your body, it is killed before it can multiply.

But the measles virus can destroy cells in the immune system, compromising its memory capacity. This gives an opportunity to other infections diseases to also infect the person. So while the measles vaccine may not provide direct protection against other infectious diseases, children who are vaccinated against measles will have potentially healthier immune systems and therefore not fall sick to other diseases compared to those who do not get the measles vaccine.

In recent times, there has been needless concern among public health leaders about parents who aren’t getting their kids vaccinated, either due to fear of the vaccine’s safety or on religious grounds. But the study shows that vaccination against measles lead to fewer child deaths from diseases such as pneumonia, bronchitis, bronchiolitis and sepsis.

Moreover, while previous research suggested that this “immune amnesia” typically lasts for a month or two, the new study says that, on average, measles-induced immune damage lasted for 28 months, or just over two years. The study, published in the journal Science, looked at decades of data on children’s health from the U.S., Denmark, England and Wales.

“The work demonstrates that measles may have long-term insidious immunologic effects on the immune system that place children at risk for years following infection,” said Princeton University infectious disease immunologist and epidemiologist Michael Mina, who conducted the study.

Michael Mina adds, “Our work reiterates the true importance of preserving high levels of measles vaccine coverage as the consequences of measles infections may be much more devastating than is readily observable.”

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