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The Consequences of Measles Can Be Deadly

While the controversy surrounding measles vaccine rages on, our family doctors in Delray Beach thought you should know some facts about measles, especially a little-known, but ultimately fatal result that can appear years after infection.

What is measles?

First, let’s look at the disease itself. Despite its outward manifestation as a red, itchy rash, measles is in fact a respiratory infection caused by a virus. First identified in Persia in the 9th Century, measles was first found to be caused by an infectious agent in 1757 by a Scottish physician.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in the decade before 1963 when a vaccine became available, nearly all children contracted measles by the time they were 15 years old. It is estimated that three to four million people in the United States were infected each year. Of those, approximately 400 to 500 people died, and 48,000 were hospitalized.

Measles is a highly contagious virus that lives in the throat and mucus of an infected person. It spreads through coughing and sneezing. The virus can survive for up to two hours in an airspace where an infected person coughed or sneezed. If other people breathe the contaminated air or touch the infected surface, then touch their eyes, nose, or mouth, they can become infected.

Measles is so contagious that if one person has it, up to 90 percent of people close to that person who are not immune will also become infected. The infection can be spread to others from four days before through four days after the rash appears.

Through aggressive use of the measles vaccine (as part of the measles, mumps, and rubella or MMR vaccine), measles was declared eliminated from the United States in the year 2000. As of the middle of this month, 465 diagnosed cases have been reported to the CDC.


Typical symptoms of measles infection include:

  • fever
  • dry cough
  • runny nose
  • sore throat
  • inflamed eyes (conjunctivitis)
  • skin rash comprising large, red, flat blotches that seem to flow into one another


Possibly because so many baby boomers remember having measles as a child and surviving with just a few days’ severe itching, people tend to think of measles as a harmless, if annoying, normal childhood disease.

But a significant number of those who contract measles will develop severe and even deadly complications.

According to the CDC:

  • As many as one out of every 20 children with measles gets pneumonia, the most common cause of death from measles in young children.
  • About one child out of every 1,000 who contract measles will develop encephalitis, which can lead to convulsions and can leave the child deaf or with intellectual disabilities.
  • For every 1,000 children who get measles, one or two will die from it.
  • Measles may cause pregnant women to give birth prematurely or have a low-birth-weight baby.

Other complications can include ear infection, bronchitis, laryngitis or croup.

100 percent fatal

These are just the immediate results. The most serious long-term complication is a rare disease of the central nervous system called subacute sclerosing panencephalitis (SSPE). SSPE generally develops seven to 10 years after a person contracts the measles virus. Between four and 11 people out of every 100,000 who get measles will develop SSPE.

According to the Encephalitis Society, SSPE begins slowly with subtle symptoms. The first noticeable symptom is a change in personality and an inability to function at work or school. Hand writing or speech may also change. This is usually followed by seizures or involuntary movements, which progress within a few months to brain deterioration and dementia.

“Finally, problems affecting feeding, swallowing, and breathing contribute to the final stage of the illness,” the Encephalitis Society says. “The patient may stay in this period for many months or even years. Death is usually caused by pneumonia.”

There is currently no treatment or cure for SSPE, which can only be contracted by those who have had the measles. Everyone who gets it dies. For babies who get measles before being vaccinated, the rate of SSPE is one in 609 cases.

Your decision

The now-debunked claim that the measles vaccines cause autism (which is now thought to be due to having an older father and/or to a genetic component) has triggered an anti-vaccination movement in this country. The decision about whether to vaccinate your child is up to you. But we ask that you consider the many serious, and even deadly complications that can arise from this disease, and that you check with us if you have any questions about the safety of the vaccine.

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