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Measles Wipe Out Essential Memory Cells That Protect Against Other Diseases

05/08/2015 01:04 EDT | Updated 05/08/2015 01:59 EDT

Measles can harm the immune system for up to three years, leaving survivors at a higher risk of catching other infectious and potentially deadly diseases, researchers said Thursday.

It was previously known that measles could suppress the body's natural defenses for months, but the findings in the journal Science show that the dangers of the vaccine-preventable disease last much longer, by wiping out essential memory cells that protect the body against infections like pneumonia, meningitis and parasitic diseases.

"In other words, if you get measles, three years down the road, you could die from something that you would not die from had you not been infected with measles," said co-author C. Jessica Metcalf, assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and public affairs at Princeton University.

Measles is one of the most contagious diseases of all. It typically causes a rash and fever, and can lead to dangerous complications such as lung infections, brain swelling and seizures.

After the measles vaccine was introduced some 50 years ago, mortality from measles began to fall in Europe and the United States, as did deaths from other infectious disease, the researchers said.

Looking at deaths among children aged one to nine in Europe, and one and 14 in the United States, in both pre- and post-vaccine eras, researchers found a "very strong correlation between measles incidence and deaths from other diseases, allowing for a 'lag period' averaging roughly 28 months after infection with measles," said the study.

"Our findings suggest that measles vaccines have benefits that extend beyond just protecting against measles itself," said lead author Michael Mina, a medical student at Emory University who worked on the study as a postdoctoral researcher at Princeton.

"It is one of the most cost-effective interventions for global health."

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