What the Measles Vaccine Could Do for Public Health

Measles may weaken immune system for several years, vaccine may indirectly prevent other infectious diseases

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) Measles — once a common childhood disease but now much less so because of vaccination — may make your immune system weaker for years. The measles vaccine, however, could stop this from happening and give public health a boost.

Although scientists knew measles could temporarily suppress a child’s immune system, a new study found that the effects may last much longer than anyone thought. On the other hand, measles vaccination might indirectly protect from diseases other than measles, said the authors of this study.

"Our findings suggest that measles vaccines have benefits that extend beyond just protecting against measles itself," said lead study author Michael J. Mina, a postdoctoral researcher at Princeton University, in a press release. “It is one of the most cost-effective interventions for global health."

Bradley R. Berg, MD, PhD, division director of pediatrics at Baylor Scott and White in Austin and Round Rock, also supports measles vaccination.

"This study shows that children who contract measles also lose their immunity to other diseases which lasts up to 3-5 years," Dr. Berg told dailyRx News. "This means that they are 30-50% more likely to die from another childhood illness."

Measles is caused by a virus that can temporarily suppress a patient’s immune system. The virus attacks cells called T-lymphocytes. T-lymphocytes are known to build an “immune memory” to disease.

After a measles infection, the T-lymphocytes return, but instead of protecting the patient from a variety of infections, they only work on the measles virus. By wiping out this “immune memory,” measles may suppress the immune system and make the patient more vulnerable to other infections.

Vaccines can keep kids measles-free, however, which could mean that they wouldn't be opened up to the increased infection risk from having had measles.

Mina and colleagues studied data from the US and UK. These researchers analyzed deaths among children aged 1 to 9 in the UK and 1 to 14 in the US.

They compared measles incidence (number of cases) with deaths. They found a strong link between the incidence of measles and deaths from other causes.

Mina and team also found that immune system suppression from measles infection lasted up to three years — instead of just a few months, as was once thought. In the pre-vaccination era, when measles was more common, measles infections could have been a factor in up to half of all childhood deaths from infectious disease, Mina and team said.

"If a child contracts measles, they will be immunocompromised for up to 3-5 years," Dr. Berg said. "It will be important for parents to protect their children from exposure to further illnesses during this time period. The most important would include getting their immunizations updated to protect against preventable illnesses. Also parents need to consider daycare and preschools, perhaps choosing one which does not allow sick or unimmunized children to attend. It is also important to teach children to wash their hands frequently as this is the primary way illnesses are caught. These three measures would go a long way to protecting children during this vulnerable period."

Mina and team noted that measles vaccination may not only protect children from measles, but may also protect them from other infectious diseases.

"We already knew that measles attacks immune memory, and that it was immunosuppressive for a short amount of time," said study author C. Jessica E. Metcalf, assistant professor at Princeton, in a press release. "But this paper suggests that immune suppression lasts much longer than previously suspected. 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."

This study was published May 7 in the journal Science.

The study received funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Science and Technology Directorate of the Department of Homeland Security and the Fogarty International Center. The authors disclosed no conflicts of interest.

Review Date: 
May 8, 2015
Last Updated:
May 11, 2015