New Evidence: Measles Targets the Body’s Immune System Memory B Cells

New studies prove that the measles virus attacks human memory B cells leaving the body weak and vulnerable for up to two years after the infection. The virus seemingly “wipes one’s immune system memory,” causing the body to forget how to correctly respond to virus strains it has previously encountered.

A Brief History

The disease made its first recorded appearance in the 9th century when a Persian doctor published his preliminary observations regarding unique symptoms of a patient. Jumping to the early 1900s, the US averaged 6,000 measles-related deaths per year. Primarily, the virus causes symptoms such as fever, fatigue, muscle pain, and a severe rash that can spread across one’s entire body. By the 1950s to early 1960s, the vast majority of children had been infected by measles, at least once, by the time that they were 15 years old. It was not until 1963 when the first successful vaccine was produced. Currently, the measles virus is considered “eliminated” from the United States due to the fact that there are less than 1,000 cases per year – this number is far less than the approximately 4,000,000 that were infected per year in the 1950s.

Why should we be worried?

Although measles in the United States is very rare, according to UNICEF (on March 1, 2019), 98 countries reported more cases in 2018 than 2017. The Philippines, Brazil and Venezuela are among the countries with the highest increase in cases; however, Ukraine found itself at the top of the list. In one year, Ukraine’s cases increased by 30,000 – from 24,000 in 2017 to over 54,000 in 2018. The issue has been fueled predominately by vaccine skepticism coupled with the prodigiously contagious nature of the virus.

Despite the initial side effects of the virus, which indubitably can be life threatening without proper treatment, infected individuals must be wary of measles’ long term effects – effects that can last up to two years. Many individuals who contract measles have shown to have weaker immune systems for an extended period of time and are more prone to infections. In order to discover the reason behind this outcome, virologist Rik de Swart traveled to a community in the Netherlands of Orthodox Protestants in an area often referred to as the Dutch Bible Belt. Inhabitants living in this community refuse vaccinations due to a combination of personal choice and religion; therefore, measles outbreaks are common. In 2013, Swart collected blood samples from healthy, unvaccinated children along with a total of 77 samples from children who had recently contracted measles. When comparing the two groups, Swart noticed a depletion of cells in the infected individuals. In fact, according to the findings Swart’s study, the virus specifically targets cells in the human immune system that are responsible for “carrying memory of previously experienced infections.” In scientific terms, these vital components are called memory B cells and serve to remember past infections in order to properly respond in a timely manner if the threats return. Most importantly, memory B cells are not commonly disposed of in the human body. The average lifespan of these highly specific cells is over 50 years. With the aid of memory B cells, most repeat viruses are eliminated before an individual even feels symptoms; this is called immunity. Since measles attacks and lyses memory B cells rapidly, the loss of immune memory inhibits the process to correctly respond to virus strains that one has previously encountered, thus leading to more frequent illness. In general, this effect has been termed ‘immune amnesia’ in Nature Communications for 2018.

Immune Amnesia Recovery

Although time varies from person to person, affected immune systems can take up to two years to become stable. Since, in most cases, the measles virus erases the vast majority of memory B cells, bodily recovery is composed of rebuilding the virus memory database one by one as outside particles enter the body. At the end of the day, a simple vaccine for measles can provide the protection necessary to prevent measles and avoid its pernicious effects.

Sources:

“Measles | History of Measles | CDC.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2018, www.cdc.gov/measles/about/history.html.

NurPhoto, et al. “Measles Vaccines Protect against More than Just Measles. Here’s How.” National Geographic, 4 Mar. 2019, www.nationalgeographic.com/science/2019/03/measles-vaccine-protect-disease-immune-amnesia/.

Sanders, Laura. “Measles Erases the Immune System’s Memory.” Science News, 21 May 2019, www.sciencenews.org/article/measles-immune-system-memory-infection.

Sidhu, Sabrina. “Alarming Global Surge of Measles Cases a Growing Threat to Children – UNICEF.” UNICEF, 28 Feb. 2019, www.unicef.org/press-releases/alarming-global-surge-measles-cases-growing-threat-children-unicef-0.2 attachments

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