Measles virus could wipe out the immune system’s ‘memory,’ new research suggests

By Jacqueline Stenson

Skipping the measles vaccine may put children at risk in more ways than one, new research suggests.

Not only could kids contract measles and suffer its direct effects, they also may sustain measles-induced damage to their immune systems, causing them to experience “immune amnesia” and making them susceptible to other infections they previously were protected against, according to two studies published Thursday.

“Measles virus is much more deleterious that previously recognized,” said Stephen Elledge, a professor of genetics at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School in Boston, whose study was published in the journal Science.

Earlier research by one of Elledge’s co-authors, Dr. Michael Mina, an assistant professor of epidemiology and immunology at Harvard School of Public Health, observed that measles appears to suppress the immune system for two to three years after infection, contributing to greater rates of infectious disease and death in children. Other research suggested that the impact may last up to five years. Doctors have also seen that when measles vaccines have been introduced into communities, overall childhood mortality drops, from measles and other causes, too. But the precise reason for these observations hasn’t been clear.

The new research offers an explanation. “There were hints of it from the epidemiological studies, but this really nails it,” Elledge said. “This shows that your immune system is debilitated [by measles], and that means that the measles vaccine is even that much more valuable.”

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