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Can Measles Cause Injury and/or Death?

Can measles cause injury and death

Worldwide, measles is one of the leading causes of death in children living in undeveloped countries. In 2016, the World Health Organization attributed 89,780 deaths to measles infection, with most deaths occurring in children under the age of five.1 In the United States, the last reported death related to measles was reported to have occurred in 2015.2 This death occurred in an immunocompromised woman who had been previously vaccinated for measles. Initially, the death was attributed to pneumonia, however, when the presence of measles was found on autopsy, health officials revised her cause of death.3

Complications from measles include: 4 5 6

  • Otitis Media
  • Bronchitis
  • Croup
  • Diarrhea
  • Pneumonia
  • Seizures
  • Appendicitis
  • Hepatitis
  • Myocarditis (inflammation of the heart muscle)
  • Thrombocytopenia (blood disorder)
  • Death

Measles also can cause a miscarriage in a pregnant woman, or cause her to give birth prematurely, or have a low-birth-weight baby.7

In developing countries, serious malnutrition, vitamin A deficiency and immunosuppressive diseases such as HIV/AIDS often lead to more severe cases of measles and a higher risk of death.8

A rare but fatal disease of the central nervous system, subacute sclerosing panencephalitis (SSPE - a progressive, debilitating and deadly brain disorder) can also develop later in life after a measles infection earlier in life.9 Signs of SSPE include:10 

  • Changes in personality
  • Sleeplessness
  • Distractibility
  • Gradual onset of mental deterioration
  • Myoclonia (muscle spasms or jerks)
  • An elevated anti-measles antibody (IgGP in the serum and cerebrospinal fluid)

While measles infection has the potential to cause injury and death, it has also been noted to have a positive impact on improving health outcomes. Published studies report on the improvement of kidney disease, including nephrotic syndrome, following measles infection.11 12 13 14 Measles infection has also been noted to result in long term remission of juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, 15 16 17 and psoriasis.18 A positive history of measles infection prior to college was also noted to reduce the risk of Parkinson’s disease.19 Additionally, a published case study reported remission of Hodgkin’s Disease and the complete disappearance of a cervical tumor following measles infection.20

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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1 WHO Measles Sep. 20, 2018

2 CDC Measles Data and Statistics. Feb. 16, 2018

3 Ford D Washington reports first U.S. measles death in 12 years CNN Jul. 2, 2015

4 Perry RT, Halsey NA. The Clinical Significance of Measles: A Review. J Infect Dis. 2004 May 1;189 Suppl 1:S4-16

5 Mayo Clinic Measles Sep. 7, 2018

6 Institute of Medicine Committee to Review Adverse Effects of Vaccines. Adverse Effects of Vaccines: Evidence and Causality. (Evaluating Biological Mechanisms for Adverse Events: Increased Susceptibility). Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. 2012. Chap. 4 (103-238)

7 CDC Measles – Complications. Epidemiology and Prevention of Vaccine-Preventable Diseases (The Pink Book). 13th ed. 2015.

8 WHO Measles Sep. 20, 2018

9 CDC Measles (Rubeola). Complications of Measles. Mar. 3, 2017

10 Tesini BL, Subacute Sclerosing Panencephalitis (SSPE) Merck Manual Professional Version. Jan 2018

11 Blumberg RW, Cassady HA. Effect of measles on the nephrotic syndrome. Am J Dis Child. 1947 Feb;73(2):151-66.

12 Rosenblum AH, Lander HB, Fisher RM Measles in the nephrotic syndrome Pediatrics Nov. 1949; 35(5) 574-584

13 Meizlik EH, Carpenter AM Beneficial effect of measles on nephrosis; report of three cases. Am J Dis Child. 1948 Jul;76(1):83-90.

14 Gairdner D A notable case of nephrosis. Arch Dis Child. 1978 May; 53(5): 363–365.

15 Lepore L, Agosti E, Pennesi M, et al. Long-term remission induced by measles infection and followed by immunosuppressive therapy in a case of refractory juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. Pediatr Med Chir. 1988 Mar-Apr;10(2):191-3.

16 Urbach J, Schurr D, Abramov A. Prolonged remission of juvenile rheumatoid arthritis (Still's disease) following measles. Acta Paediatr Scand. 1983 Nov;72(6):917-8.

17 Simpanen E, van Essen R, Isomäki H. Remission of juvenile rheumatoid arthritis (Still's disease) after measles. Lancet. 1977 Nov 5;2(8045):987-8.

18 Chakravarti VS, Lingam S. Measles induced remission of psoriasis. Ann Trop Paediatr. 1986 Dec;6(4):293-4.

19 Sasco AJ, Paffenbarger RS Jr. Measles infection and Parkinson's disease. Am J Epidemiol. 1985 Dec; 122(6):1017-31.

20 Mota HC Infantile Hodgkin's disease: remission after measles. Br Med J. 1973 May 19; 2(5863): 421.

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