Measles can leave children's immune systems vulnerable to other diseases for up to three years after infection, according to new research. Photo by CDC
PRINCETON, N.J., May 8 (UPI) -- Researchers already knew measles works to suppress a child's immune system. Those with the illness can remain susceptible to pneumonia, bouts of diarrhea and other infections for several weeks or months.
But new research suggests the immune system hangover lasts much longer -- two to three years. A so-called "immune-amnesia" makes it difficult for children to defend against other illnesses well after the measles symptoms have subsided.
"The immune system kind of comes back," Michael Mina, the study's lead author, told NPR. "The only problem is that it has forgotten what it once knew."
Mina, who is now a medical student at Emory, worked on the research as a postdoctoral biology student at Princeton. The study recently appeared in the journal Science.
Experiments have previously demonstrated a similar phenomenon in monkeys. The measles infection was found to strip macaque monkeys of white blood cells trained to ward off other diseases.
Now epidemiological data confirm the same thing is happening in humans.
In looking at health outcomes from as far back as the 1940s in the United States, Wales, Denmark and England, researchers found that the number of measles infections predicted the number deaths from other childhood disease for several years.
"Really it didn't matter what age group, what decade or what country," he told the Los Angeles Times.
The evidence further emphasizes the importance of vaccinating against the disease. More than help children avoid measles, the shot might prevent a whole range of infections.
Mina hopes the research will not only inspire greater immunology protection, but also more studies like his.
"I'm hoping the paper, beyond its results, will introduce a new way of merging immunology and population biology."