Measles saps kids’ ability to fight other germs

WASHINGTON — Measles has a stealth side effect: New research shows it erases much of the immune system’s memory of how to fight other germs, so children recover only to be left more vulnerable to bugs like flu or strep.

Scientists dubbed the startling findings “immune amnesia.” The body can rebuild those defences — but it could take years.

And with measles on the rise, “it should be a scary phenomenon,” said Dr. Michael Mina of Harvard’s school of public health, lead author of research published Thursday in the journal Science.

“This goes under the radar” because doctors wouldn’t necessarily connect a child’s pneumonia to measles they suffered a year earlier, Mina explained. “But would they have gotten it if they hadn’t gotten measles?”

The Harvard team analyzed blood samples taken from 77 children before and after a measles outbreak in an unvaccinated community in the Netherlands. They looked for antibodies, which remember viruses and bacteria they encounter to guard against a repeat infection. After recovering from measles, the youngsters were left with plenty of antibodies against that virus — but ones they’d previously harboured against other germs had plummeted.

In the most severe cases, “they’re just as vulnerable as if they were infants,” said study senior author Stephen Elledge, a Harvard geneticist. Elledge is paid by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, which also supports AP’s Health & Science Department.

A separate study, published Thursday in Science Immunology, supported the findings. Researchers from Britain’s Wellcome Sanger Institute used the Dutch blood samples to genetically test antibody-producing cells, and concluded measles is eliminating enough to re-set the immune system to a baby-like state.

If protection against the misery — and sometimes life-threatening effects — of measles isn’t enough reason to vaccinate children, specialists said the two studies offer a powerful new rationale.

“There really are profound gaps and holes” in someone’s immunity after measles, said Dr. Anthony Fauci of the U.S. National Institutes of Health, which helped fund the Harvard work. “You ultimately recover but after a year or two or sometimes more.”

“It’s doubly important to vaccinate children,” agreed Dr. Mark Mulligan of NYU Langone Health, who wasn’t involved with the new research. “It’s a vaccine that protects against the specific target, measles virus, but also against immune suppression.”

Measles is one of the world’s most contagious viruses, able to spread through coughs and sneezes for four days before someone develops the characteristic rash. It sometimes leaves children with brain damage or hearing loss, and while deaths are rare in the U.S., measles killed 110,000 people globally in 2017.

The vaccine offers powerful protection but a lack of access means measles remains rampant in many lower-income countries. Even the U.S., where most children are immunized, has seen a resurgence fueled by outbreaks in unvaccinated communities that in turn threaten people too young or sick to be immunized. So far this year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has counted more than 1,200 U.S. measles cases, the most since 1992.

Doctors have long known that people temporarily experience weakened immunity after measles. Using decades of health records, Mina previously reported that child deaths from other infections jumped after a measles outbreak, increases that lasted two or three years.

But no one knew why, until the new study.

The Dutch children started out pretty healthy: Technology developed in Elledge’s lab found antibodies in their blood against typical childhood germs. But two months after recovering from measles, the children had lost on average 20 per cent of their usual antibody mix. Some lost up to 70 per cent of protection against specific bugs, limiting their ability to respond if they encounter that germ again.

Importantly, researchers didn’t find loss of antibodies in “control” populations that didn’t get infected with measles — or in children after they received the measles vaccine.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Paul Harris, owner of Tribe restaurant downtown, said a lot of the blame for the latest restrictions that will close outdoor patios on Sunday can be blamed on those not obeying health regulations and the government for failing to enforce the rules.
Photo by Paul Cowley/Advocate staff
Restaurant owners frustrated by patio shutdowns

Outdoor patios must stop serving by midnight Sunday to stem rising COVID infections

The City of Red Deer said Wednesday that some outdoor activity rentals will be available starting Monday for households only. (Advocate File Photo)
City of Red Deer outlines activities available as new provincial COVID-19 restrictions set in

There will be limited recreation activities available across the City of Red… Continue reading

As of Friday, Alberta has under 10,000 active COVID-19 cases. (Image courtesy CDC)
Alberta reports 2,271 new COVID-19 cases, Red Deer cases rise slightly

Across Alberta, there are 666 people in hospital with COVID-19, including 146 in the ICU

‘Love, Oran’ is a documentary feature made by Red Deer-raised filmmaker Colin Scheyen. It’s about hidden letters, found in a Woodlea home after 70 years, revealing a family secret. (Screenshot by Advocate staff).
Hidden letters reveal secrets of Red Deer family in a new documentary film

‘Love, Oran,’ by filmmaker Colin Scheyen is showing at Edmonton’s NorthwestFest

Red Deer Rebels’ three graduating players, Josh Tarzwell (left), Chris Douglas (middle) and Ethan Anders (right) will all move on to new opportunities next season. (Photo by ROB WALLATOR/Red Deer Rebels)
‘It was a rollercoaster’: Rebels’ graduating players look back on wild season

The nerves. Even three-and-a-half-years later, Josh Tarzwell still remembers the nervousness he… Continue reading

Jets beat Flames 4-0 to snap seven-game losing streak and clinch playoff spot

Jets beat Flames 4-0 to snap seven-game losing streak and clinch playoff spot

Team Canada skip Kerri Einarson, left, directs her teammates, lead Briane Meilleur, right, and second Shannon Birchard, against Estonia at the Women's World Curling Championship in Calgary, Alta., Wednesday, May 5, 2021.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
Canada’s Einarson extends win streak to four games at world curling playdowns

Canada’s Einarson extends win streak to four games at world curling playdowns

CF Montreal head coach Wilfried Nancy, left, talks with midfielder Lassi Lappalainen during the second half of an MLS soccer match against Columbus Crew, Saturday, May 1, 2021, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. The game ended in a 0-0 tie. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
Canadian MLS teams try to make best of relocation

Canadian MLS teams try to make best of relocation

Damian Warner, of Canada bronze, smiles during the medal ceremony for the decathlon at the World Athletics Championships in Doha, Qatar, Friday, Oct. 4, 2019.  THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Nariman El-Mofty
Decathlete Damian Warner says being a dad has brought balance and new perspective

Decathlete Damian Warner says being a dad has brought balance and new perspective

Toronto Blue Jays' Vladimir Guerrero Jr. gestures rounding third base after hitting his third home run against the Washington Nationals during the seventh inning of a baseball game Thursday, April 27, 2021, in Dunedin, Fla. (AP Photo/Mike Carlson)
Blue Jays shuffling back to Buffalo starting June 1

Blue Jays shuffling back to Buffalo starting June 1

Bedard, Wright lead Canadians into gold-medal game at U18 championship

Bedard, Wright lead Canadians into gold-medal game at U18 championship

Canada players are seen prior to the match against Costa Rica as part of the 2021 CONCACAF Futsal Championship in Guatemala City, Guatemala in this Wednesday, May 5, 2021 handout photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO, CONCACAF, Straffon Images, Norvin Mendoza *MANDATORY CREDIT*
Canada loses to Costa Rica but advances at CONCACAF Futsal Championship

Canada loses to Costa Rica but advances at CONCACAF Futsal Championship

Yukon Premier Sandy Silver addresses the audience at the Yukon Government swearing in ceremony, in the Yukon Government Legislature foyer, in Whitehorse, Monday, May 3, 2021. The Yukon government says travelers who can prove they've been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 will no longer be required to self-isolate when they enter the territory beginning May 25. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Mark Kelly
Yukon to lift requirement of 14-day self-isolation for arriving travellers on May 25

Yukon to lift requirement of 14-day self-isolation for arriving travellers on May 25

Most Read