Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
As a kid who was home-schooled on a Virginia farm in the 1950s, I wasn’t around other kids very much, and so didn’t get exposed to measles. And there was no vaccine yet. Later on as a medical resident, I didn’t recognize that I wasn’t immune. So when I was hospitalized with a severe febrile illness at age 29, it took a while to figure out the diagnosis. Yes, it was measles. I have never been that sick before or since. I was lucky not to have long-term consequences, and now I’m learning that there may be even more to consider.
With the big push to get kids vaccinated, you’ve probably heard about some of the very serious complications of measles: hearing-threatening ear infections, bronchitis, laryngitis, and even life-threatening forms of pneumonia and encephalitis. But now comes word of yet another way in which the measles can be devastating—one that may also have long-term consequences for a person’s health.
In a new study in the journal Science, a research team, partly funded by NIH, found that the measles virus not only can make children deathly ill, it can cause their immune systems to forget how to ward off other common infections . The virus does this by wiping out up to nearly three-quarters of the protective antibodies that a child’s body has formed in response to past microbial invaders and vaccinations. This immune “amnesia” can leave a child more vulnerable to re-contracting infections, such as influenza or respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), that they may have been protected against before they came down with measles.
The finding comes as yet another reason to feel immensely grateful that, thanks to our highly effective vaccination programs, most people born in the U.S. from the 1960s onward should never have to experience the measles.
There had been hints that the measles virus might somehow suppress a person’s immune system. Epidemiological evidence also had suggested that measles infections might lead to increased susceptibility to infection for years afterwards . Scientists had even suspected this might be explained by a kind of immune amnesia. The trouble was that there wasn’t any direct proof that such a phenomenon actually existed.
In the new work, the researchers, led by Michael Mina, Tomasz Kula, and Stephen Elledge, Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston, took advantage of a tool developed a few years ago in the Elledge lab called VirScan . VirScan detects antibodies in blood samples acquired as a result of a person’s past encounters with hundreds of viruses, bacteria, or vaccines, providing a comprehensive snapshot of acquired immunity at a particular moment in time.
To look for evidence of immune amnesia following the measles, the research team needed blood samples gathered from people both before and after infection. These types of samples are currently hard to come by in the U.S. thanks to the success of vaccines. By partnering with Rik de Swart, Erasmus University Medical Center, Rotterdam, Netherlands, they found the samples that they needed.
During a recent measles outbreak in the Netherlands, de Swart had gathered blood samples from children living in communities with low vaccination rates. Elledge’s group used VirScan with 77 unvaccinated kids to measure antibodies in samples collected before and about two months after their measles infections.
That included 34 children who had mild infections and 43 who had severe measles. The researchers also examined blood samples from five children who remained uninfected and 110 kids who hadn’t been exposed to the measles virus.
The VirScan data showed that the infected kids, not surprisingly, produced antibodies to the measles virus. But their other antibodies dropped and seemed to be disappearing. In fact, depending on the severity of measles infection, the kids showed on average a loss of around 40 percent of their antibody memory, with greater losses in children with severe cases of the measles. In at least one case, the loss reached a whopping 73 percent.
This all resonates with me. I do recall that after my bout with the measles, I seemed to be coming down with a lot of respiratory infections. I attributed that to the lifestyle of a medical resident—being around lots of sick patients and not getting much sleep. But maybe it was more than that.
The researchers suggest that the loss of immune memory may stem from the measles virus destroying some of the long-lived cells in bone marrow. These cells remember past infections and, based on that immunological memory, churn out needed antibodies to thwart reinvading viruses.
Interestingly, after a measles infection, the children’s immune systems still responded to new infections and could form new immune memories. But it appears the measles caused long term, possibly permanent, losses of a significant portion of previously acquired immunities. This loss of immune memory put the children at a distinct disadvantage should those old bugs circulate again.
It’s important to note that, unlike measles infection, the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine does NOT compromise previously acquired immunity. So, these findings come as yet another reminder of the public value of measles vaccination.
Prior to 1963, when the measles vaccine was developed, 3 to 4 million Americans got the measles each year. As more people were vaccinated, the incidence of measles plummeted. By the year 2000, the disease was declared eliminated from the U.S.
Unfortunately, measles has made a come back, fueled by vaccine refusals. In October, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported an estimated 1,250 measles cases in the United States so far in 2019, surpassing the total number of cases reported annually in each of the past 25 years .
Around the world, measles continues to infect 7 million people each year, leading to an estimated 120,000 deaths. Based on the new findings, Elledge’s team now suspects the actual toll of the measles may be five times greater, due to the effects of immune amnesia.
The good news is those numbers can be reduced if more people get the vaccine, which has been shown repeatedly in many large and rigorous studies to be safe and effective. The CDC recommends that children should receive their first dose by 12 to 15 months of age and a second dose between the ages of 4 and 6. Older people who’ve been vaccinated or have had the measles previously should consider being re-vaccinated, especially if they live in places with low vaccination rates or will be traveling to countries where measles are endemic.
 Measles virus infection diminishes preexisting antibodies that offer protection from other pathogens. Mina MJ, Kula T, Leng Y, Li M, de Vries RD, Knip M, Siljander H, Rewers M, Choy DF, Wilson MS, Larman HB, Nelson AN, Griffin DE, de Swart RL, Elledge SJ. et al. Science. 2019 Nov 1; 366 (6465): 599-606.
 Long-term measles-induced immunomodulation increases overall childhood infectious disease mortality. Mina MJ, Metcalf CJE, De Swart RL, Osterhaus ADME, Grenfell BT. Science. 2015 May 8; 348(6235).
 Viral immunology. Comprehensive serological profiling of human populations using a synthetic human virome. Xu GJ, Kula T, Xu Q, Li MZ, Vernon SD, Ndung’u T, Ruxrungtham K, Sanchez J, Brander C, Chung RT, O’Connor KC, Walker B, Larman HB, Elledge SJ. Science. 2015 Jun 5;348(6239):aaa0698.
 Measles cases and outbreaks. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Oct. 11, 2019.
Measles (MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia/National Library of Medicine/NIH)
Measles History (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
Vaccines (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases/NIAID)
Vaccines Protect Your Community (Vaccines.gov)
Elledge Lab (Harvard Medical School, Boston)
NIH Support: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases