At its worst, measles eliminates a substantial proportion of the immunological protection of patients for years

A natural measles infection causes an immunological ‘memory loss’, which heightens the risk of contracting and dying of infectious diseases even years after a measles infection.

A study carried out by American, Dutch and Finnish researchers, published in the Science journal, demonstrates that a natural measles infection causes a distinct loss of immunological memory: on average, a measles infection eliminates 40% of a patient’s antibody repertoire (individual variation between 11% and 73%).

“This finding provides an explanation for an earlier epidemiological observation according to which a measles infection is followed by increased morbidity and mortality caused by other infections for years after the measles infection,” says Professor Mikael Knip from the University of Helsinki and the Children’s Hospital, Helsinki University Hospital.

The study employed VirScan, a technique developed in Boston, which enables the simultaneous analysis of antibodies to nearly all known human viral pathogens as well as certain bacteria. In addition, the technique makes it possible to estimate the relative level of viral antibodies.

In the study, children who had contracted measles were monitored for two months after the acute infection. The researchers found that decreased antibody levels recovered in a handful of children after natural re-exposure to pathogens.

Also in the study was a group of children who were monitored before and after receiving their measles vaccination. What the results showed was that the vaccine did not cause any immunological memory loss.

“These results highlight the significance of measles vaccinations in preventing natural measles infections and reducing the risk of other common infections in children,” Knip notes.

According to Knip, the findings also raise the question whether the measles vaccination should be compulsory for small children and whether children who have contracted measles naturally should be revaccinated with the vaccines they were given before contracting measles.

Further information:

Professor Mikael Knip, University of Helsinki and Helsinki University Hospital
Tel. +358 50 448 7722

Reference: Mina MJ, Kula T, Leng Y, Li M, de Vries R, Knip M, Siljander H; Rewers M, Wilson M, Larman HB, Nelson AN, Griffin D, De Swart R, Elledge SJ.  Measles virus infection diminishes preexisting antibodies that offer protection from other pathogens. Science 2019; 366. DOI: 10.1126/science.aay6485 

Doctoral Programme in Clinical Research