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Can Measles cause injury and/or death?

Updated February 05, 2023

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Complications from measles are usually most frequent among children under 5 and adults over 20. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports that approximately 30 percent of all reported measles cases result in at least one complication. 

The most frequently reported complications are diarrhea, ear infection, and pneumonia.  Additional measles complications can include bronchitis, croup, seizures, appendicitis, hepatitis, inflammation of the heart muscle (myocarditis), thrombocytopenia, encephalitis, and rarely death.       Measles during pregnancy may result in miscarriage, premature, or low-birth-weight baby. 

Subacute sclerosing panencephalitis (SSPE), a rare but fatal progressive central nervous system disorder, may also occur after a measles.  SSPE is believed to be the result of a persistent measles infection of the brain. Signs of SSPE include personality changes, sleep disturbances, distractibility, gradual onset of mental deterioration, muscle spasms, and an elevated anti-measles antibody of the blood and cerebrospinal fluid.  SSPE usually occurs an average of 7 years after a measles infection, (range – 1 month to 27 years). It is believed to occur in the U.S. in 5-10 cases per million reported measles infections. 

In developing countries, measles is one of the leading causes of death in children. In 2017, the World Health Organization (WHO) attributed 110,000 deaths to measles infection, with most deaths occurring in children under age 5. In these countries, serious malnutrition, vitamin A deficiency and immunosuppressive diseases such as HIV/AIDS often lead to more severe cases of measles and a higher death rate. 

Measles is rarely fatal in the United States, and historically, measles-related deaths have been reported in only 1 out of 10,000 cases.    The last measles-related death in the United States was reported in 2015.  In this case, that death occurred in an immunocompromised woman who was previously vaccinated for measles. Initially, her death was reported to be related to pneumonia; however, on autopsy, the measles virus was isolated, which prompted a revision to her cause of death.   

While measles infection occasionally causes injury and/or death, recovery from measles may improve one’s health.

In published medical literature, recovery from measles has been shown to improve health outcomes of persons with kidney disease and nephrotic syndrome.        Remission of juvenile rheumatoid arthritis,       and psoriasis  have also been documented after recovery from measles. A positive history of measles infection prior to college was found to reduce the risk of Parkinson’s disease.  Additionally, a case study published in the British Medical Journal reported remission of Hodgkin’s disease and the complete disappearance of a cervical tumor on recovery from measles.  In 2015, Japanese researchers reported that a positive history of measles and mumps decreased a person’s risk of death from cardiovascular disease. 

IMPORTANT NOTE: NVIC encourages you to become fully informed about Measles and the Measles vaccine by reading all sections in the Table of Contents , which contain many links and resources such as the manufacturer product information inserts, and to speak with one or more trusted health care professionals before making a vaccination decision for yourself or your child. This information is for educational purposes only and is not intended as medical advice.


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