(Healthline) – One side of the vaccination debate is receiving what they consider to be a big influx of ammunition.
The measles virus reportedly causes long-term damage to the human immune system, effectively deleting the body’s defenses against other viruses.
That’s according to researchers from the Wellcome Sanger Institute in England, the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands, and other institutions.
The discovery was reported today in the journal Science Immunology.
According to doctors, the research adds to the importance of parents getting their children immunized.
The revelation explains why children often get other infectious diseases after having measles, and comes as declining immunization rates are causing a measles comeback.
Apparently, measles is bringing other diseases along for the ride.
“Measles is on a big upsurge throughout the world,” Amesh Adalja, MD, FIDSA, an infectious disease specialist and senior scholar at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told Healthline.
“Countries such as the U.K. have lost their (measles) elimination status, while the U.S. saw record numbers of cases — and narrowly avoided losing elimination status. Vaccine hesitancy has taken its toll on measles vaccine confidence, and the world is dealing with an infection that should have been controlled decades ago,” he said.
How the measles virus works
It was previously understood that measles weakens the immune system, but now researchers have determined how.
During a measles infection, a person has fewer protective white blood cells. After recovery a few weeks later, the white blood cell count goes back up. But now scientists know that person is still “much more susceptible to other infectious diseases,” according to the statement.
Researchers looked at a group of non-vaccinated people in the Netherlands, taken before and after a 2013 measles outbreak in their community.
After sequencing antibody genes from 26 children before their infection and then 40 to 50 days after their infection, the scientists found that specific immune memory cells built up against other diseases — and were present before the measles infection — vanished from the children’s blood, leaving them vulnerable to diseases to which they were once immune.
“This study is a direct demonstration in humans of ‘immunological amnesia,’ where the immune system forgets how to respond to infections encountered before,” Velislava Petrova, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow at the Wellcome Sanger Institute and the study’s lead author, said in a statement. “We show that measles directly causes the loss of protection to other infectious diseases.”
Researchers then tested the idea in ferrets, showing that a measles-like virus reduced flu antibodies in ferrets previously vaccinated against the flu. The ferrets had worse flu symptoms after having the measles-like virus.
The researchers discovered measles resets the immune system to an immature state, where it’s only able to make a limited number of antibodies.
Colin Russell, a professor of applied evolutionary biology at the University of Amsterdam, says measles makes the human immune system “baby-like.”
“In some children, the effect is so strong it is similar to being given powerful immunosuppressive drugs,” he said in a statement. “Our study has huge implications for vaccination and public health, as we show that not only does measles vaccination protect people from measles, but also protects from other infectious diseases.”