Why more measles patients die of other infections

Measles virus wipes out the body’s immunity

By DTE Staff
Last Updated: Friday 01 November 2019
Measles. Photo: Getty Images

The world is witnessing a revival of measles. Since 2018, there has been a 300 per cent increase in measles cases globally. Currently, it infects some seven million people while over 100,000 die.

But what worries the medical fraternity is the fact that a significant number of such deaths are due to secondary infection. A study published in the journal Science on November 1 offered an answer, and it is disturbing.

“Many of the deaths attributable to the measles virus are caused by secondary infections because the virus infects and functionally impairs immune cells,” the research paper concluded, based on experiments on measles affected children.

Scientists from institutions like the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Harvard Medical School and Postgraduate School of Molecular Medicine, Erasmus MC, University Medical Centre Rotterdam conducted the study and wrote the paper.

The authors have cautioned that their findings on the measles virus’s impact on immunity of body are an urgent call for attention; Attack by the virus has been on the rise globally.

They deployed a blood test called VirScan on the antibody level of children before and after natural measles infection. They also conducted the same test in children vaccinated against measles.

“We studied 77 unvaccinated children before and two months after natural measles virus infection. Measles caused elimination of 11 to 73 per cent of the antibody repertoire across individuals,” the study found.

“Recovery of antibodies was detected after natural re-exposure to pathogens. Notably, these immune system effects were not observed in infants vaccinated against MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella), but were confirmed in measles-infected macaques,” it added.

Whenever a pathogen attacks our body, the natural reaction is to create immunity to it. This remains inside us as a “memory”.

Next time if that pathogen again attacks the body, this comes to the rescue. The new study says that the measles virus is attacking this part of the human body’s immunity.

The virus, as the experiment found, is impairing the cells that store this memory or immunity information. This means in future we will not be able to fight many other infections / virus attacks.

This explains also the large number of deaths not just due to measles but also concurrent infections when measles virus attacks a child.

Children lost up to 73 per cent of antibodies after recovering from measles. The number of white blood cells (WBC) — an indicator of how well-equipped the body is to fight infections — remained the same after children recovered from measles, but their they lost their capacity to fight infections, according to the report.

The WBCs had the capacity to fight measles but lost already available antibody generated from other infections. This made them susceptible to attacks from other infections, without the power to fight them.

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