The measles outbreak in the U.S. has now reached a record high with 880 cases confirmed in 2019 so far. And that number is even more concerning in light of new research that shows the scary long-term effect that the contagious disease can have on a person’s body.
In a study conducted in the Netherlands, scientists analyzed the blood samples of 77 unvaccinated children before and after an outbreak of the measles. They discovered that following the infection, the children had much lower levels of immune memory cells in their blood.
Researchers then looked at the health records from children in the U.K. between 1990 and 2014 and found that those who had had previously had measles were diagnosed with more infections over the years than children who hadn’t had the disease.
That’s due to an effect known as immune amnesia, which essentially means that the measles virus wipes out some of the immune system’s memory cells so that the body forgets how to fight off other infections for up to five years following the original diagnosis.
“The virus preferentially infects cells in the immune system that carry the memory of previously experienced infections,” Rik de Swart, one of those involved in the study and a virologist at Erasmus University Medical Center in the Netherlands, explained to Science News. His research colleague, Michael Mina, who is an infectious disease epidemiologist at Harvard University, added, “It really puts you at increased susceptibility for everything else.”
Their findings, published in Nature Communications and BMJ Open in 2018, are further proof of the importance of vaccination, which the CDC continues to remind parents is the safest and most effective way of protecting against measles.
“At the end of the day, we know how to prevent this potentially lethal disease,” Mina remarked. “It’s so simple.”