Measles Can Wipe out Your Immune System’s Memory

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Here’s one more reason that measles is a harmful disease that should be taken seriously and, you know, vaccinated against: if you contract it, it could erase the entire memory of your immune system.

The way it normally works is that when you catch an illness, your immune system remembers a little bit how to fight off that illness in the future. That’s why vaccines work. But if you catch measles, the “memory” of most every bug you’ve gotten – every cold, every flu, every virus – may cease to exist.

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This article in Science News reports that the measles virus continues to damage a person’s health even after the worst of the symptoms have passed. It attacks the immune system’s memory cells, leaving the body vulnerable to infections – even ones it has previously defeated.

Researchers began to suspect that measles caused this sort of symptom when infected monkeys in other studies showed similar deletions. It’s no accidental side effect, either – the measles virus heads straight for immune system cells once it’s gotten into a host.

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Research on unvaccinated children in the Netherlands supports the conclusion in human subjects, as well.

Not only that, but scientists aren’t sure how long it takes one’s immune system to recover – or if the lost memory can be accessed again at all. One study that covered 2,228 kids showed the participants still showed an increased risk of contracting other illnesses over the next 5 years.

They were also 43% more likely to contract another infection within a month than the control, and 15-24% more likely to require drugs to fight off an infection over the following 5 years.

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Rik de Swart, the co-author of the Science News study, drew some conclusions based on the data.

“Wherever you introduce measles vaccination, you always reduce childhood mortality. Always. While the acute symptoms of measles itself are very rarely fatal, the virus’ lingering legacy massively increases the chances of catching something much more severe further down the line.”

Bottom line? The measles virus is quite clever, so only the cleverest of humans (who protect themselves from it) are going to come out the other side unscathed.