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Measles is much more than a benign childhood disease, with an estimated 114,000 deaths annually. New research shows that measles is even deadlier than previously thought, showing that there's no excuse not to vaccinate your children.

Have you been wondering whether or not to get a measles shot for your child(ren), worried about the potential side effects or believing that building up natural immunity to the disease by getting it during childhood is the more robust option?

New research that found a deadly complication of the measles virus is much more common than previously thought definitely needs to be part of your decision-making process. The complication is called subacute sclerosing panencephalitis (SSPE), and it's somewhat like "shingles for measles" — but much worse than shingles.

SSPE is a progressive neurological disorder that causes brain inflammation, and while most people who develop it succumb to it within a year or two, the condition is always fatal. Data previously suggested that SSPE occurred in around one in 100,000 of all people who caught measles — still not something you want to play with, really — but the new study paints a much bleaker picture.

It estimates that children who catch measles before age five have a one in 1,387 chance of developing SSPE, while the risk is as much as one in 609 for those who get the measles before 12 months of age.

How Does Measles Lead To SSPE?

The body typically rids itself of the measles virus completely after around two weeks. In a small percentage of measles patients, however, the virus doesn't go away. Rather, it retreats to the brain, where it remains dormant — sometimes forever, but sometimes it becomes reactivated, and in that case, you have SSPE on your hands.

SSPE then develops in three stages:

  • Stage 1: Subtle behavioral changes occur in the patient.
  • Stage 2: Seizures occur. They may not be all that obvious at first, but gradually develop into more frequent and severe episodes.
  • Stage 3: Seizures become constant, after which coma sets in.

Lead author Kristen Wendorf, a pediatrician at UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital Oakland, who also worked on vaccine policy development in California, said:

"We've seen parents of the children who have gotten this devastating complication, they don't even have this disease on their radar. We hope this encourages people to get vaccinated as soon as possible to avoid exposure."

Indeed, in the current vaccine-questioning climate, the previously reported less than 10 cases of SSPE annually may not seem like a lot — and parents may believe that perceived vaccine side effects are much more prevalent. The new findings are frightening, however, and deserve to be taken seriously. Note that the average age of SSPE diagnosis was 12 within the small study of 17 individuals, but while some patients were diagnosed when they were only three, others were as old as 35. That means that the measles virus can remain dormant within the brain for whole decades, only to become reactivated and cause SSPE.

What's more, as the measles vaccine isn't administered until somewhere between the ages of 12 and 15 months, and rates of non-vaccination are rising, it isn't just children whose parents are anti-vaccine who are at risk of SSPE. This is the so often discussed "herd immunity" in action: in order to keep the most vulnerable, those who haven't had the chance to be vaccinated (yet) safe from the deadly disorder, the rest of us need to be fully immunized.

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