Anti-vaxxers often minimize the measles, arguing wrongly that it is little more than a benign childhood illness like strep throat (which can also be deadly). But doctors agree measles is actually more comparable to a lower-grade form of HIV. Once contracted, the measles virus can ravage a person’s T-cells and impair the immune system for years. Much like HIV, there is no cure. Suffice it say, this disease is far more consequential than a common cold.
“Measles is more than just another childhood illness because it will often attack the memory cells of the immune system,” family physician Dr. David Cope explains. “This attack on the T-Cells is exactly how HIV attacks the body. However, HIV’s attack is more intense and permanent.”
When a person contracts the measles, they typically present with flu-like symptoms similar to the onset of HIV, but often with a distinct rash as well. Typically, the immune system responds to viruses by releasing T-cells, which are equipped with immunity memory so they can recall past threats and fight them off more effectively. But when the measles virus enters the bloodstream, it destroys cell memory and creates a state of immune amnesia. This can suppress the immune system for up to three years and during that window, children are much more susceptible to infections and diseases, similar to people with HIV.
“While there is no evidence for permanent immunity loss, the lingering effect may make people vulnerable to other infections that may cause death or disease,” says Dr. Jagdish Khubchandani, a physician and community health professor at Ball State University.
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Once the immune system is impaired, kids are more likely to contract bacterial infections and other viruses, such as pneumonia and diarrhea. In more extreme cases, measles can lead to hepatitis as well as hearing and vision loss. Because it can trigger brain swelling, the measles can also lead to meningitis and encephalitis, and even a very rare fatal brain condition called subacute sclerosing panencephalitis. The measles, like HIV, can be very difficult to treat once these other complications crop up.
“Clinical diagnosis can be complicated and hard if measles results in complications, almost mimicking HIV infections,” Khubchandani says.
It’s important to note that while HIV and the measles are similar in terms of how they affect the immune system, the ways in which these diseases spread are very different.
“Epidemiologically, these diseases are very different. Measles is a disease that spreads through droplets that stay suspended in the air for up to two hours,” Dr. Teena Chopra, a physician and Corporate Medical Director of Infection Prevention at the Detroit Medical Center. “Measles is 18 times more contagious than HIV. One case can infect up to 12 to 18 patients.”
Ultimately, HIV affects people for life. There is no cure. Similarly, there is no cure for measles. That said, the compromised T-cells of children who survive the disease eventually regenerate. Most children with healthy immune systems recover. That said, the process takes three years, which is a long time to go without a functional immune system and a very, very long time to go without a functional immune system if you’re in daycare.
This is why the MMR vaccine is so critically important. It’s not just about preventing the measles; it’s about preventing other conditions that the measles can cause.
“Like HIV, it destroys the body’s ability to fight infections. For measles, this effect can last for years. Even children who have been healthy can die from these infections,” Cope warns. “With measles, nearly a third of the babies or children who contract it are sick enough to be in the hospital requiring intensive medical support.”