Measles Vaccine Helps Protect Against More Than Just Measles

6:30 minutes

Child's arm receiving a vaccine
The measles vaccine may protect from more than just measles. Credit: Pixabay

The benefit of the measles vaccine is clear—widespread vaccination is credited with saving an estimated 21.1 million lives between 2000 and 2017, and an 80% reduction in measles cases worldwide. The vaccine may help protect against more than just the measles, however. Two studies published this week in the journals Science and Science Immunology found that people infected with the measles can develop an immune system ‘amnesia,’ losing antibodies to other pathogens. In one study, researchers found that as much as 73% of the immune antibody repertoire was wiped out in people who had been infected with the measles, even two months after the people stopped showing measles symptoms. 

Science writer Eleanor Cummins joins Ira to talk about that research, and other stories from the week in science, including an experimental vaccine for tuberculosis, the limits of genetic investigations into human origins, and the strange science behind exhumation

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Segment Guests

Eleanor Cummins

Eleanor Cummins is a freelance science journalist based in New York, New York.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. A bit later in the hour, we’ll be talking about a class of chemicals called PFAS. Some chemicals in the PFAS class have been linked to serious diseases, including cancer and testicular cancer and kidney cancer. One man has been crusading for their control for decades, and he will join us.

But first, there are obvious reasons that you don’t want to catch the measles, right? But this week, researchers report another reason, that a measles infection can leave you vulnerable to other diseases even after the measles infection is cured. Joining me now to talk about that and other selected shorts subjects in science is Eleanor Cummins. She’s a science writer based here in New York. Welcome back.

ELEANOR CUMMINS: Thanks for having me.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s get right into it, this measles research. What did the scientists find?

ELEANOR CUMMINS: Right. So clinicians have been reporting for a while that they’ll see patients that seem to have this suppressed immune response after they’ve been exposed to measles. But the scientists actually wanted to look into that. So in a new study in the journal Science and another one in Science Immunology they actually tried to look at the immune systems of children who have been exposed to the virus.

And what they found is this phenomenon that’s called immune amnesia where your immune system seems to be completely compromised by measles such that you can get all different kinds of diseases besides measles just because you’ve been infected.

IRA FLATOW: So this is one reason to get your kids vaccinated.

ELEANOR CUMMINS: Absolutely. Yeah, it’s another great reason because– so you have the primary symptoms of measles, right? Like, you will get a terrible rash, and it can kill kids. But now they’re saying that this immune amnesia can last for months or, in some cases, years after the fact.

IRA FLATOW: Do they have any idea of how this happens or the mechanism that’s going on?

ELEANOR CUMMINS: Yeah. So these researchers were able to look at a population of 77 unvaccinated kids in the Netherlands. And so it was a sort of perfect natural experiment where they were monitoring them, and then as they became exposed to measles, they watched how that changed their immune system.

And what they found was that the immune cells that you have in your body, these antibodies that have been trained to fight off disease, are compromised by the measles, which sort of infiltrates that system. So you basically will have– over the course of your life, you are exposed to pathogens in your body and learns to fight them off. But after you have measles, it’s like your clocks have been totally cleaned, and you’re kind of starting over with a lot of these pathogen.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. Wow. That’s interesting. Let’s go on to other immunology news. And there’s a new experimental evidence or there’s a vaccine for tuberculosis.



ELEANOR CUMMINS: It’s really exciting. It’s a big– yeah, a big leap forward. So what scientists have been working on is a vaccine that can fight off tuberculosis. Right now, if you know you’re exposed to TB, you go on a really severe round of antibiotics for a long time. And they were like, what if we can just develop a vaccine?

So the final data from the first trial is out, and it’s really promising. What they found is that it appears to reduce the risk of someone who has latent tuberculosis, no symptoms, developing full-blown tuberculosis by about 50%.

IRA FLATOW: Wow, that’s pretty good. Moving on, there was a study that said it was tracing us back to our birth humanity. Where was that?

ELEANOR CUMMINS: Yeah, so what you have to know is that there’s this thing called mitochondrial genome. And so it’s in our DNA, and it’s this little snippet that we only inherit from our mothers. And that’s really exciting genetically because it means you can trace it really far back, theoretically, to some of the first moms of humanity.

And so what these geneticists did was they looked at an understudied group in southern Africa that has the L0 mitogenome, and it’s one of the oldest out there. It’s actually the oldest. And so they wanted to trace it back, and they found that it originated about 200,000 years ago in the region that’s now the Kalahari Desert, which was, at the time, a beautiful wetland. And so then the question became that they’re trying to extrapolate this to modern humans and tell our origin story.

IRA FLATOW: And some pushback on that, I’m sure.

ELEANOR CUMMINS: Oh yes, a lot of pushback. So other geneticists, they said, well, first of all, you can’t necessarily just take one group of living humans and say that they represent other living humans or, especially, humans of the past. So they got some pushback there.

And then other people have pointed out that it doesn’t really take into account any other evidence besides this DNA. So we have incredible remains from Homo sapiens 200,000 years ago in Morocco, which is really far northeast of where this proposed homeland is. So it kind of complicates things.

IRA FLATOW: Speaking of remains, you have a story about exhumation. It’s not a Halloween story, right?

ELEANOR CUMMINS: No, it’s a news story. So there have been a bunch of cases in the news of very high profile people being exhumed. So recently, the Spanish government exhumed the former dictator Francisco Franco. There’s also a case right now where John Dillinger, the gangster, some of his relatives are trying to dig him up because they think an imposter is in his grave, and they want to prove that. So they’re trying to disinter him.

IRA FLATOW: So they haven’t got the opinion yet to do that or they’re–

ELEANOR CUMMINS: So the state of Illinois approved their license to do this, but the cemetery is fighting back because the cemetery doesn’t want to go digging up everybody every time a distant relative has some kind of question they want to answer. So they have not been fully approved.

IRA FLATOW: Isn’t it right? Even though you try to dig up a body, there may not be one there?

ELEANOR CUMMINS: Yeah. So the thing that was amazing was when I was talking to people who do this all the time– they’re experts in exhumation– they’re like, we have no idea what we’ll find. Any time we open a grave, it’s going to be a totally different experience based off of the way that the person was buried and the way their body was prepared.

IRA FLATOW: Are you working on this story?

ELEANOR CUMMINS: Yeah, yeah. It was in Fox, and it was so exciting to just sort of hear how surprised they are every time they do their job.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, and there have been some very famous exhumations, as you say.

ELEANOR CUMMINS: Yeah, one is Eva Perón, the Argentinean first lady. She was famously exhumed, and she was almost perfectly preserved. She had been embalmed, and it really lasted. But they’re more likely are going to sort of disintegrate over time, such that sometimes you’ll dig it up and there will only be soil there. There won’t be any evidence that there was ever a burial.

IRA FLATOW: Mm. That’s interesting. It’s not like it happens in the movies.

ELEANOR CUMMINS: No, not at all.

IRA FLATOW: Thank you very much for taking the time to be with us today.


IRA FLATOW: Eleanor Cummins is a freelance science writer based in New York.

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