Why the Measles Vaccine May Be the Most Important One Your Child Gets

posted: 05/13/15
by: Blythe Copeland
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The measles vaccine may help prevent other infectious diseases.

Though kids in the U.S. have been getting pricked with the measles vaccine for more than five decades, a team of researchers may have solved a big mystery surrounding the disease. Since the vaccine became popular in the '60s, childhood deaths from measles seriously declined (not surprisingly) but deaths from other diseases dropped dramatically, too. Whenever the vaccine is introduced to a developing country, the same effect occurs. So what's so special about the measles vaccine? Some point to the fact that children who receive the vaccine probably have access to better health care, but a new study suggests a different explanation.

In their recent research, Michael Mina, a postdoc in biology at Princeton University and a medical student at Emory University, and his colleagues came across an important finding: Measles can affect the immune system for up to 3 years. Yes, you read that correctly, contracting measles can make children susceptible to everything from pneumonia to a second bout of chicken pox for up to three years.

The team came to this conclusion by looking at records from four countries going as far back as the 1940s; they found that measles cases were related to deaths from other infectious diseases. As measles cases declined, deaths from other diseases dropped as much as 80 percent; an outbreak of measles correlated with a rise in deaths from other diseases.

The results indicate that instead of shutting down the immune system for just a few weeks while the disease is present, measles causes a kind of "immune amnesia." So not only does measles stifle the immune system, but it also causes it to "forget" how it fought other infectious diseases.Mina told NPR: "The immune system kind of comes back. The only problem is that it has forgotten what it once knew." Bottom line: your child's immune system has to more or less rebuild itself and relearn how to protect the body from infections.

Though this research is compelling, it's still brand new and needs to be further studied. Yet Mina says he hopes the study has a positive influence on vaccination rates: "I think this paper will provide additional evidence--if it's needed--of the public health benefits of measles vaccine."