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Department of Viroscience

Measles virus weakens the immune system by infecting and killing memory cells of the immune system. This is the main conclusion of a study performed by researchers of the Erasmus MC in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, which was published this week in Nature Communications. Measles is known to cause immune suppression, leading to an increased risk to contract other infectious diseases. In an epidemiological study recently published in BMJ Open the same research group showed that this increased risk lasted for a period of several years.
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Measles is a highly contagious disease and still causes more than 85,000 deaths around the world every year. In Europe the numbers of measles cases are on the rise, mostly due to vaccination hesitancy. People have forgotten about the complications that are often seen after measles, and tend to believe that it is an innocent childhood disease. Hence, understanding the true impact of measles is important.

In 2013 a large measles epidemic took place in the Netherlands, mainly in the Orthodox Protestant community. Thanks to the help of more than 100 unvaccinated children and their parents the researchers were able to perform a unique outbreak study focused on understanding the mechanism of measles immune suppression. The investigators collected blood samples before, during and after measles. In samples collected during the acute phase of the disease they observed that the virus mainly infected memory cells of the immune system. These memory cells protect the body from infections they have encountered before, either by quickly killing them upon sight or producing antibodies to apprehend the targets. Measles virus infects and kills many of these memory cells, partly erasing immune memory. This phenomenon is called ‘immune amnesia’.

Findings from the two studies provide additional evidence that measles leaves a strong mark on the immune system, which can remain for several years after recovery from the acute phase of the disease.

The studies were performed under supervision of Dr. Rik de Swart. De Swart: “In countries with poor healthcare systems the risk of dying from measles is substantial. In countries with strong healthcare systems measles deaths are rare. However, the risk of contracting measles is very high for everyone who is not vaccinated and did not have the disease before. Therefore, we should reverse the trend of decreasing vaccination coverage or we will see increasing numbers of measles cases. And those children will be at increased risk of contracting other infections for several years.”

In conclusion, measles is not an innocent childhood disease as commonly thought, but a serious and dangerous disease, with consequences that last up to several years after recovery. Vaccination against measles is vital and elimination of measles is a global priority.

Please read the infographic about what measles are and how we study it by clicking in the link here. Infographic

Please click here for the article: Gadroen et al., BMJ Open 2018. DOI: 10.1136/bmjopen-2017-021465

Studies into the mechanism of measles-associated immune suppression during a measles outbreak in the Netherlands:

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