It’s been well known for years that measles damages the immune system, one of the many dangerous complications of the disease. That’s one of the many reasons why we are so strongly in favor of the MMR vaccine and so strongly against measles outbreaks.
Of course, the anti-vaccine zealots will continue to believe that “natural” measles infections will confer some super-immunity to their children. Many deliberately try to infect their kids with the disease.
However, this scientific research, published in one of the most prestigious peer-reviewed scientific journals on this planet, provides convincing evidence that measles damages the immune system. And we should make sure our children don’t contract this dangerous disease.
All about measles
Measles (also called rubeola, not to be confused with rubella, or German measles) is a respiratory disease caused by the measles virus. Measles virus normally grows in the cells that line the back of the throat and lungs.
The virus is spread through respiration (contact with fluids from an infected person’s nose and mouth, either directly or through aerosol transmission), and is highly contagious — 90% of people without immunity sharing living space with an infected person will catch it.
There are no specific treatments for the disease. There are no miracle preventions.
The oft-repeated, and highly inaccurate, claim that vitamin A supplements can cure or prevent measles completely misses the mark. It’s important to supplement with vitamin A to prevent blindness as a result of measles, but it doesn’t reduce mortality or prevent some neurological issues. Moreover, it is most useful in children with vitamin A deficiency, not exactly a major issue in well-fed children in developed countries.
According to the CDC, some of the many measles complications are:
- About 30% of measles cases develop one or more complications.
- Pneumonia, which is the complication that is most often the cause of death in young children.
- Ear infections occur in about 1 in 10 measles cases and permanent loss of hearing can result.
- Diarrhea is reported in about 8% of cases.
- As many as 1 out of every 20 children with measles gets pneumonia.
- About 1 child in every 1,000 who get measles will develop encephalitis, an inflammation of the brain that can lead to convulsions, deafness, and other long-term neurological deficits.
- A measles infection can result in short- and long-term immune system dysfunction which can leave the child susceptible to other diseases early in life (which is in direct opposition of claims by anti-vaccine activists that it helps “boost” the immune system. Of course, we have new studies that describe why this happens, which will be outlined below.
- About 1-2 children, out of 1000 who contract measles, may develop subacute sclerosing panencephalitis (SSPE), a rare chronic, progressive encephalitis that affects primarily children and young adults– it is caused by a persistent infection of the measles virus. The disease starts with measles infection, usually before the age of 2 years, followed by approximately 6-15 asymptomatic years. Some researchers think the asymptomatic period is around 5-8 years after the initial disease. Gradually, the disease progresses with psychological and neurological deterioration, which can include personality changes, seizures, and coma. It is always ultimately fatal.
- And sadly, for every 1,000 children who get measles, 1 or 2 will die from it.
I’m not here for fearmongering – but we know that measles is a dangerous, debilitating disease that has both short and long-term consequences.
Measles damages the immune system – research
Two papers, published in Science and its sister publication Science Immunology examined the effect of measles on the immune system in Dutch Reformed Church. Members of this church have had a tradition of refusing vaccines going as far back as the early 1800s when smallpox inoculations were becoming common.
Because of this vaccine refusal, there have been outbreaks of paralytic poliomyelitis, measles, congenital rubella syndrome, and mumps in this community. In 2013, a major outbreak of measles hit a Dutch Reformed community in the Netherlands, with 1226 reported cases. Of the 1,226 cases, 176 (14.4%) had complications including encephalitis (1 case), pneumonia (90 cases) and otitis media (66 cases) and 82 (6.7%) were admitted to the hospital.
These two studies of individuals in that religious group who contracted measles found that the infection causes substantial short- and long-term damage to the immune system.
Dr. Michael Mina, Department of Genetics at Harvard University, has been studying the effect of measles on the immune system for several years. In 2015, he wrote that children who contracted measles are more likely to catch other diseases.
Dr. Mina concluded that 2-3X the number of children who die of measles may later die of other infections that result from how measles damages the immune system.
The new paper from Dr. Mina explains why this happens. As children, we are exposed to pathogens, which causes us to accumulate specialized B-lymphocyte cells, which produce antibodies against pathogens. These are the main weapon of the body’s immune system to battle those pathogens. Once we are sensitized to an antigen, the adaptive immune system often fights off diseases even before we can present with symptoms of a disease.
The measles virus kills these cells, and once that happens, the immune system loses the “memory” of those pathogens. And then those children are susceptible to those pathogens again. Dr. Mina et al. determined between 11-73% of the B-lymphocytes were lost forever, essentially losing that amount of their antibody “library” which are the only tools for the immune system to attack pathogens.
And just in case you were wondering, Dr. Mina also determined that the MMR vaccine had no such effect on the immune system. We could have predicted this result since the living measles virus can replicate and attack lymphocytes. The weakened virus in the MMR vaccine is not pathogenic, it just provides antigens to train the immune system.
Dr. Mina speculated that those children who contracted measles had to be re-exposed to all of the pathogens that they had encountered in their lives. Of course, every pathogen has some risk, so these children will be at risk of infectious diseases that they had already contracted, but their immune system lost the “memory” of them.
In the second study, by Dr. Velislava N. Petrova et al., uncovered data that the damage might be worse than that. The immune system starts with what are called “naive cells” that are the precursors to all of the adaptive immune system cells.
As these cells mature, they diversify to recognize unique molecules on different pathogens. It allows them to quickly learn, remember, and respond to new pathogens. Measles causes the immune system to essentially reset to infancy, meaning the child’s immune system has to be exposed to many different pathogens to build up the immune system’s memory, in effect, immune system amnesia.
This study is in line with another study that concluded that individuals who have contracted measles had lowered immunity for up to five years!
This agrees with studies showing that people who have had measles have lowered immunity for up to five years.
Petrova et al. concluded that:
Our results show that MeV (measles virus) infection causes changes in naïve and memory B lymphocyte diversity that persist after the resolution of clinical disease and thus contribute to compromised immunity to previous infections or vaccinations. This work highlights the importance of MeV vaccination not only for the control of measles but also for the maintenance of herd immunity to other pathogens, which can be compromised after MeV infection.
And Mina et al. concluded that:
The reduction in humoral immune memory after measles infection generates potential vulnerability to future infections, underscoring the need for widespread vaccination.
It’s clear that these two papers came to the same conclusion – the measles damages the immune system. Get the MMR vaccine, because it will protect children’s lives and protect their immune system.
- Gadroen K, Dodd CN, Masclee GMC, de Ridder MAJ, Weibel D, Mina MJ, Grenfell BT, Sturkenboom MCJM, van de Vijver DAMC, de Swart RL. Impact and longevity of measles-associated immune suppression: a matched cohort study using data from the THIN general practice database in the UK. BMJ Open. 2018 Nov 8;8(11):e021465. doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2017-021465. PubMed PMID: 30413497; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC6231568.
- Mina MJ, Kula T, Leng Y, Li M, de Vries RD, Knip M, Siljander H, Rewers M, Choy DF, Wilson MS, Larman HB, Nelson AN, Griffin DE, de Swart RL, Elledge SJ. Measles virus infection diminishes preexisting antibodies that offer protection from other pathogens. Science. 2019 Nov 1;366(6465):599-606. doi: 10.1126/science.aay6485. PubMed PMID: 31672891.
- Mina MJ, Metcalf CJ, de Swart RL, Osterhaus AD, Grenfell BT. Long-term measles-induced immunomodulation increases overall childhood infectious disease mortality. Science. 2015 May 8;348(6235):694-9. doi: 10.1126/science.aaa3662. Epub 2015 May 7. PubMed PMID: 25954009; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC4823017.
- Petrova VN, Sawatsky B, Han AX, Laksono BM, Walz L, Parker E, Pieper K, Anderson CA, de Vries RD, Lanzavecchia A, Kellam P, von Messling V, de Swart RL, Russell CA. Incomplete genetic reconstitution of B cell pools contributes to prolonged immunosuppression after measles. Sci Immunol. 2019 Nov 1;4(41). doi: 10.1126/sciimmunol.aay6125. PubMed PMID: 31672862.