Kids who have had measles are at higher risk of fatal infections

Virus weakens immune system for years, study finds

Measels shot

BONUS SHOT  The measles vaccine gives people an unexpected bonus: Preventing measles keeps the immune system healthy enough to fend off other diseases.

Bubbles Photolibrary/Alamy

Vaccinating kids against measles protects them from a slew of other deadly diseases, a new analysis published in the May 8 Science finds.

Even three years after measles infection, children are about twice as likely to die from other infectious diseases as children who haven’t had measles, the study suggests.

Johns Hopkins University epidemiologist William Moss finds the new results convincing. Preventing measles infections seems to come with the unexpected bonus of preventing other infections too, he says.

“Getting the message out that the measles vaccine has this extra benefit is very important,” Moss says. “Particularly in this country, at this time.”

After massive vaccination campaigns in the United States and Europe in the 1960s and 1980s, researchers noticed that childhood mortality rates dropped even more than expected. The reason for this drop was a bit of a mystery, Moss says.

The new study’s authors wondered if preventing measles made people less vulnerable to dying from other illnesses. Scientists knew that measles hammered the immune system, but they didn’t know quite how hard. So the researchers combed through decades of measles incidence and mortality data from England, Wales, the United States and Denmark to find clues.

In each of the four countries, the team found a link between measles cases and children who died from other infectious diseases. Measles infection seems to leave people open to attack from other viruses and bacteria for years — much longer than scientists had suspected, says study coauthor Michael Mina, an immunologist and epidemiologist now at Emory University in Atlanta.

“Measles is much worse than people thought,” he says. “It has these long-term consequences, and it’s gone under the radar for decades.”

He and colleagues from Princeton University, The National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., and Erasmus University Medical Center in the Netherlands think that measles erases the immune system’s memory, as previous work in monkeys has hinted. So children’s bodies may have trouble recognizing and fending off microbial intruders.

Meghan Rosen is a staff writer who reports on the life sciences for Science News. She earned a Ph.D. in biochemistry and molecular biology with an emphasis in biotechnology from the University of California, Davis, and later graduated from the science communication program at UC Santa Cruz.

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