New research shows that a novel antiviral drug may effectively suppress illness and infectivity in people exposed to measles, providing a possible new prevention strategy against one of the world’s leading causes of pediatric death.

Dr. Richard Plemper, a researcher at the Institute for Biomedical Sciences at Georgia State University and senior author of the study, said that the findings could help bring down disease rates in areas of the world where vaccines aren’t readily available. "The emergence of strong antiviral immunity in treated animals is particularly encouraging, since it suggests that the drug may not only save an infected individual from disease but contribute to closing measles immunity gaps in a population," he explained in a press release.

The new drug, dubbed ERDRP-0519, shuts down disease progression by blocking the viral replication of the pathogen. It was developed in collaboration with the Emory Institute for Drug Development (EIDD) in Atlanta.

To investigate, Plemper and colleagues tested the drug on ferrets infected with the canine distemper virus — a highly lethal pathogen that is closely related to the virus that causes measles in humans. The results, published in the journal Science Translational Medicine, show that all animals who received ERDRP-0519 survived the infection, remained disease free, and developed robust immunity against the virus.

“There is typically a two-week window between becoming infected and the onset of symptoms like skin rash, runny nose and fever,” the researchers explained. “The anti-viral drug … is specifically designed to work during this two-week window, when vaccination can no longer protect from disease.”

Measles in 2014

Though largely eradicated in many part of the developed world, measles continues to plague poorer regions, with about 20 million cases and more than 100,000 deaths annually. The disease, which is characterized by fever, cough, rashes, and malaise, is associated with mortality as high as 10 percent in populations with high rates of malnutrition and limited health care infrastructure.

Despite positive results, the developers are quick to point out that the new drug should not be considered an alternative to immunization. Since the 1980s, the measles-mumps-rubella shot has helped bring down mortality by more than 90 percent — and in nations like the U.S., immunization is still the most convenient way to avoid infection.

“It’s important to note that the drug is not an alternative or replacement for proper vaccination,” the researchers wrote. “However these results hint that its use could be a way to help eradicate the disease in regions with relatively low vaccination coverage.”

Source: Krumm SA, Yan D, Plemper RK, et al. An Orally Available, Small-Molecule Polymerase Inhibitor Shows Efficacy Against a Lethal Morbillivirus Infection in a Large Animal Model. Science Translational Medicine. 2014.