The measles virus is known to cast a deadly shadow upon children by temporarily suppressing their immune systems. While this vulnerability was previously thought to have lasted a month or two, a new study shows that children may actually live in the immunological shadow of measles for up to three years – leaving them highly susceptible to a host of other deadly diseases.
Published in the journal Science, the study, led by researchers from Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, provides epidemiologic evidence that measles may throw the body into a much longer-term state of “immune amnesia, ” where essential memory cells that protect the body against infectious diseases are partially wiped out.
“We already knew that measles attacks immune memory, and that it was immunosuppressive for a short amount of time. But this paper suggests that immune suppression lasts much longer than previously suspected, ” said C. Jessica Metcalf, co-author and assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and public affairs at Princeton. “In other words, if you get measles, three years down the road, you could die from something that you would not die from had you not been infected with measles.”
“Our findings suggest that measles vaccines have benefits that extend beyond just protecting against measles itself, ” said lead author Michael Mina, a medical student at Emory University.
The researchers looked at deaths among children between the ages of 1 and 9 in Europe, and 1 and 14 in the United States, in both pre- and post-vaccine eras. They ran a basic association test – comparing measles incidence and deaths. The initial analysis came back statistically significant but weaker than expected, not showing a strong connection between the two.
At this point, Mina and his collaborators decided to evaluate the data making different assumptions about how long the possible immune-amnesia effects of measles may last. This exploration uncovered a very strong correlation between measles incidence and deaths from other diseases, allowing for a “lag period” averaging roughly 28 months after infection with measles. This finding was consistent in all age groups across the three countries and also consistent in pre- and post-vaccine eras.
“In other words, reducing measles incidence appears to cause a drop in deaths from other infectious diseases due to indirect effects of measles infection on the human immune system, ” Grenfell said. “At the population level, the data suggests that when measles was rampant, it may have led to a reduction in herd immunity against other infectious diseases.”