Measles and Immunosuppression—When Getting Well Means You Can Still Get Sick


In 2000 measles was officially declared eliminated in the United States (1), meaning there had been no disease transmission for over 12 months. Unfortunately it was not gone for good. So far in 2024 there have been 8 outbreaks and 131 cases. Ninety of these case (69%) are associated with an outbreak and seventy (53%) have resulted in hospitalization (as of May 2, 2024; 2).  

Help in Limiting a Dangerous Childhood Disease

Before the development of a vaccine in the 1960s, measles was practically a childhood rite of passage. This common childhood disease is not without teeth however. One out of every 20 children with measles develops pneumonia, 1 out of every 1,000 develops encephalitis (swelling of the brain), and 1 to 3 of every 1,000 dies from respiratory and neurological complications (3). Between the years of 1958 and 1962, the US averaged 503,282 reported cases of measles (4). The first measles vaccine was licensed in the U.S. by John Enders in 1963, and not surprisingly, after the measles vaccine became widely used, the number of cases of measles plummeted. By 1970, there were under 1,000 cases (2).

Decreased Childhood Mortality from Other Infectious Diseases—An Unexpected Benefit

What was surprising was that with the disappearance of this childhood disease, the number of childhood deaths from all infectious diseases dropped dramatically. As vaccination programs were instituted in England and parts of Europe, the same phenomenon was observed. Reduction or elimination of measles-related illness and death alone can’t explain the size of the decrease in childhood mortality. Although measles infection is associated with suppression of the immune system that will make the host vulnerable to other infections, these side effects were assumed to be short lived. In reality, the drop in mortality from infectious diseases following vaccination for measles lasted for years, not months (5).

Continue reading “Measles and Immunosuppression—When Getting Well Means You Can Still Get Sick”