Two new studies show that measles can weaken a person's immune system for years, inducing "immune amnesia" that wipes the immune system's memory of how to fight off other maladies the body has already conquered. The highly contagious measles virus still kills more than 100,000 people annually, but before a vaccine was introduced in 1963, 2.6 million people died from the disease each year. The deployment of the measles vaccine didn't just slash the measles fatality rate, though; it also drastically reduced the rate of other infectious diseases, National Geographic reports.
"We actually saw the whole overall baseline for childhood mortality drop precipitously," says Harvard's Michael Mina, a lead author of one of the new studies, published in Science. That study, and another one published in Science Immunology, explore how the measles virus kills off an alarming amount of antibodies. The findings underscore the importance of immunizing children, the authors of both studies emphasize. A number of measles outbreaks have occurred in the U.S. in the past few years, starting in communities where parents decline to vaccinate their children.
Unvaccinated children also have a higher-than-believed risk of contracting a fatal and incurable neurological disorder that can lie formant for years after a measles infection, according to new research from UCLA presented at last week's IDWeek infectious disease conference.
Previously, scientists believed the risk of developing the measles complication, subacute sclerosing panencephalitis (SSPE), was about 1 in 100,000, The Washington Post reports. The new data suggests the odds are actually 1 in 1,700 for kids who contract measles before age 5 and 1 in 609 for babies infected with the virus. "This is really frightening and we need to see that everyone gets vaccinated," UCLA's James Cherry said at the conference. The average age at which SSPE become evident is 12, but the age range for diagnosis is 3 to 35.