Two recent investigations explored the mechanisms behind which measles works. What they found was that vaccinations not only protect against the disease itself, but also against other pathogens they’ve already fought off. It’s a phenomenon known as “immunity amnesia.”
What did the research find?
In the Science Immunology report, researchers discovered that the measles infection can actually create a type of “immune amnesia” — where your body literally “forgets” how to fight off infections it’s already faced. By comparing the children’s B cell data both before and after measles infection, they discovered lower B cell numbers and, as a result, a compromised immune memory.
The Science investigation analyzed antibody responses both before and after measles infection. They discovered that the measles infection severely compromised the immune memory and depleted up to 73 percent of antibodies for months afterward, which can sometimes take years to replenish.
These investigations confirmed the hypothesis that measles can trigger immune suppression, which can last for years after visible symptoms have gone away.
Why do these findings matter?
Some 21.1 million lives have been saved between 2000 and 2017 thanks to measles vaccination. Yet in recent years, anti-vaccination campaigns have contributed to misunderstandings among patients. That’s why it’s especially important to continue researching measles, experts say.
“The measles virus holds a special place in immunology,” allergist-immunologist Duane Wesemann, MD, PhD, at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, tells Florence Health. (Dr. Wesemann wrote an analysis of the two studies published in Science Immunology). “It causes an aggressive inflammatory illness with rapid contagion, and it induces a years-long immunosuppression. Yet, paradoxically, it leaves robust anti-measles immunity in its wake. These features combine to make the measles vaccine to be a highly effective public health intervention.”
What do the findings mean for healthcare professionals?
In the era of anti-vaxxers, it’s more important than ever for clinicians to remain strong advocates for immunizations.
“It’s not that we haven’t known about the importance of measles vaccinations before,” Dr. Wesemann says. “But these additional findings give medical professionals more facts upon which to base their position when advising their patients on immunizations.”