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.
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 virus can cause fever, cough, watery eyes, and a rash of red spots. These effects are more severe in people that already have more vulnerable immune systems, like malnourished children or those with preexisting immune deficiencies.
The studies’ findings also emphasize the importance of vaccines. Measles are easily preventable — one vaccination dose is 93% effective at preventing the disease. Two doses, as recommended by most health authorities’ guidelines, make the vaccine 97% effective.
The measles vaccine protects the immune system’s memory from being deleted by the virus in the first place — and if a patient gets measles, they may want to get booster shots for all their previous vaccines, like hepatitis and polio, to mitigate the effects of immune amnesia, said the Harvard Medical School press release.
Researchers already knew that measles affects the immune system, but these two studies confirm for the first time the mechanisms of immune amnesia.
These recent outbreaks have been put down to the growth of the anti-vaccination movement, which has spread via social media and discourages parents from immunizing their children against measles and other diseases.