Measles Attacks the Immune System!

A baby with measles.

Like HIV, measles attacks the immune systemA measles virus infec­tion starts off as a res­pi­ra­to­ry infec­tion. Thus, it starts off look­ing and feel­ing like a com­mon cold. But then it takes a dan­ger­ous turn: it infects the immune sys­tem. Measles can cause long-last­ing dam­age to the immune sys­tem. Recent stud­ies have shown that a case of measles can increase a child’s risk of death from oth­er infec­tions for more than 2 years!

Measles is not the only viral infec­tion that is known to pro­duce long-term sup­pres­sion of the immune sys­tem. Anoth­er exam­ple is the human immun­od­e­fi­cien­cy virus (HIV), which is the cause of acquired immun­od­e­fi­cien­cy syn­drome (AIDS). How­ev­er, HIV and the measles virus attack dif­fer­ent kinds of white blood cells, which are the work­hors­es of the immune sys­tem.

HIV attacks the T4 lym­pho­cytes, which are often called T‑helper cells. T‑helper cells help the oth­er cells of the immune sys­tem rec­og­nize infec­tions and tumor cells. After an HIV-infect­ed person’s T4 cell count drops to dan­ger­ous­ly low lev­els, his or her immune sys­tem is less able to fight many infec­tions and some can­cers (such as Kaposi’s sar­co­ma). Thus, the weak­en­ing of the immune sys­tem gives germs and can­cer cells an oppor­tu­ni­ty to sur­vive and thrive. The result­ing dis­eases are called oppor­tunis­tic.

Peo­ple who are infect­ed by HIV will remain infect­ed for the rest of their lives. In con­trast, most peo­ple who catch the measles will elim­i­nate the measles virus from their body after only a few weeks. Yet the measles infec­tion can cause long-last­ing effects on the immune sys­tem because it wipes out the immune sys­tem’s mem­o­ry. Measles virus kills the B mem­o­ry cells, which are the white blood cells that are sup­posed to remem­ber the germs that the body has suc­cess­ful­ly fought in the past. After the B mem­o­ry cells are killed off, the immune sys­tem must relearn much of what it had already learned about dan­ger­ous germs. In the mean­time, the per­son remains at risk for oppor­tunis­tic infec­tions.

HIV is bad, and so is measles. Hav­ing HIV and measles at the same time is par­tic­u­lar­ly bad. The death rate from measles is par­tic­u­lar­ly high in peo­ple who have any oth­er form of immune sup­pres­sion. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, peo­ple who have a sup­pressed immune sys­tem can­not be vac­ci­nat­ed against measles, because the measles vac­cine is a “live” vac­cine. To pro­tect those vul­ner­a­ble peo­ple, we must ensure that prac­ti­cal­ly every­one else is vac­ci­nat­ed against measles.

Most of the deaths due to measles are due to oppor­tunis­tic infec­tions. Thus, it is hard­ly sur­pris­ing that the death rate from measles start­ed to fall after the intro­duc­tion of antibi­otics, even though antibi­otics have no effect on the measles virus itself. Yet even with the best of mod­ern med­ical care, peo­ple still die of measles. Even if they sur­vive, they may be left with per­ma­nent dis­abil­i­ties, such as blind­ness, deaf­ness, and brain dam­age. In some cas­es, the measles virus infec­tion may per­sist in the brain. This per­sis­tent infec­tion leads to a hor­ri­ble dis­ease called sub­a­cute scle­ros­ing panen­cephali­tis (SSPE), which slow­ly destroys the brain. Thus, it leads to a slow and hor­ri­ble death. There is no cure or even any effec­tive treat­ment. For­tu­nate­ly, SSPE can be pre­vent­ed by pre­vent­ing measles.

The vac­cine against measles pro­vides pow­er­ful, long-last­ing pro­tec­tion. If you have received two dos­es of the measles vac­cine, your chances of catch­ing measles go down by about 97%. Thanks to the wide­spread use of the measles vac­cine, measles was elim­i­nat­ed from the Unit­ed States by the year 2000. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, we still have occa­sion­al out­breaks of measles in the Unit­ed States. Most of these cas­es can be traced to some­one who was exposed to measles in some oth­er coun­try. So the best way to pro­tect our­selves against measles is to dri­ve the measles virus into extinc­tion world­wide.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, many par­ents are refus­ing to allow their chil­dren to be vac­ci­nat­ed against measles. Many of these par­ents have been told that it is bet­ter to allow their chil­dren to get sick, so that they devel­op immu­ni­ty nat­u­ral­ly. In real­i­ty, many of the vac­cine-pre­ventable dis­eases are dan­ger­ous because they sup­press the immune sys­tem. This immune sup­pres­sion is good for the germ that caus­es the dis­ease, but it is bad for the per­son who has the dis­ease. As a result, hav­ing a vac­cine-pre­ventable infec­tion can increase your risk of dying of some oth­er infec­tion.

Many par­ents are refus­ing vac­ci­na­tion because they think that the vac­cines are unnec­es­sary and unsafe. Con­spir­a­cy the­o­rists claim that vac­cines are being pro­mot­ed sim­ply to make mon­ey for the phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal com­pa­nies. Yet if some socio­path­ic “phar­ma bro” real­ly want­ed to make mon­ey on vac­cines, he would make sure that the vac­cine-pre­ventable dis­eases remain in cir­cu­la­tion. Once a dis­ease has been dri­ven into extinc­tion through vac­ci­na­tion, there is no longer any need to vac­ci­nate any­one against it.

Small­pox is extinct. Today, nobody vac­ci­nates chil­dren against small­pox. After polio is extinct, the sales of the polio vac­cine will drop to zero. Like small­pox and polio, measles is caused by a virus that can be found only in human beings. Once we have wiped measles, mumps, and rubel­la off the face of the earth, nobody will need the MMR vac­cine. But it would be mad­ness to stop vac­ci­nat­ing against those dis­eases before then.

For infor­ma­tion about efforts to erad­i­cate measles, vis­it the Measles & Rubel­la Ini­tia­tive.