The medical community has long known that the measles virus weakens children's immune systems, making them more susceptible to other diseases while the virus is active. However, a new study shows that this weakening effect lasts much longer than a month or two; in some cases, the immune system may be weaker for up to three years, says C. Jessica Metcalf, one of the co-authors of the study.
The health community has devoted a lot of attention to the measles virus in recent years, as the number of measles cases has begun to rise. A measles outbreak began in California at Disneyland during December 2014. By the beginning of February 2015, it had spread across 14 states, with 102 people confirmed to have the highly contagious disease.
The outbreak in California is largely attributed to an increasing lack of appropriate vaccination. A recent spotlight in Medical News Today showed that many people are concerned about the safety and side effects of the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine, and more parents are choosing to forgo the vaccination altogether. This leaves children more susceptible to catching the virus, as well as other ailments down the road. "If you get measles, three years down the road, you could die from something that you would not die from had you not been infected with measles," warns Metcalf.
The study was published in the journal Science and was led by Michael Mina, a former postdoctoral researcher at Princeton. Mina and his research team analyzed data on populations in the United States, England, Wales and Denmark, looking into death rates and incidences of the measles virus among children of ages 1 through 9 in Europe and ages 1 through 14 in the United States, during both pre- and post-vaccine eras. The researchers found a strong correlation between incidences of the measles virus and death rate from other diseases after a 28-month "lag period." The connection was consistent among all age groups in all countries studied.
What do these findings mean? "Reducing measles incidence appears to cause a drop in deaths from other infectious diseases due to indirect effects of measles infection on the human immune system," explains study co-author Bryan Grenfell. The team says its study highlights the importance of the measles vaccine, as it protects against measles-related immune memory cell loss. "It is one of the most cost-effective interventions for global health," says Mina.
While health officials initially considered the measles virus to be eradicated in the United States by the year 2000, the disease can still spread due to unvaccinated travelers and immigrants, as well as parents who refuse to vaccinate their children due to personal or religious beliefs. Vaccination is the only way to prevent any measles outbreaks and protect a child's immune system from both the measles virus and other diseases.
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