How Does Natural Infection with Measles Suppress the Immune System?

In this Science Made Easy video, Dr. Offit discusses how natural infection with measles interferes with immunological memory and its implications.


How Does Natural Infection with Measles Suppress the Immune System?

Paul Offit, MD: Hi, my name is Paul Offit. I am talking to you today from the Vaccine Education Center, here at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. I wanted to take a minute to talk about measles because of a surprising new finding. What we know about measles is we know it’s a virus; we know that it’s a virus that’s contracted usually by coming in contact with small droplets from people who are sneezing or coughing or talking near you who have measles. We know that the virus can then enter the body, travel to the skin and cause a rash. We know that the virus can travel to the lungs and cause pneumonia, which can be severe and occasionally fatal. We know that the virus can travel to the brain and cause something called encephalitis, which just means inflammation of the brain which can be severe, debilitating and occasionally fatal. What we didn’t know until now, until a paper that just came out really in October of 2019 that was published in the medical journal Science, was what the virus can also do — what natural measles virus can also do is it can eliminate previous immunological memories. So in other words if you’ve been infected with the common cold virus, usually you’re not going to get that common cold virus — that specific one — again. If you’ve been vaccinated against diphtheria or tetanus or whooping cough or polio or pneumococcus or Haemophilus influenzae b or all the vaccines that you get in the first few years of life, that this virus, this natural measles virus can actually eliminate that memory, so it’s as if you’ve never been vaccinated. So if you do have a natural measles infection, then I think the practical implication of this is that you need to go back and make sure that you still have an immune response against those previous vaccines you’ve gotten, which is to say you should have titers done. Now, the vaccine virus doesn’t do that. If you’ve gotten a measles vaccine, which is part of the measles, mumps, rubella combination vaccine, the measles vaccine doesn’t in any sense affect the immunological memory; what it does is provide immunological memory against measles. So the vaccine doesn’t do it, but the natural virus can do it, which is why the natural virus is in some ways is even more heinous than we originally imagined.

Thank you.

Related Centers and Programs: Vaccine Education Center

Last Reviewed on Jan 20, 2020