A fatal complication from the measles that kills kids many years after they have recovered from the disease may not be as unusual as previously thought, researchers suggest.
The complication, which is incurable as well as deadly, has caused the death of at least 16 adults and children in California, NBC News reports. The research team from Los Angeles and San Francisco say they believe the condition is more common than scientists had thought, and emphasizes the need to vaccinate kids against the measles.
Dr. James Cherry of the University of California Los Angeles Medical School, calls it “frightening.”
The condition, called subacute sclerosing panencephalitis or SSPE, happens when the measles virus remains in the brain, usually for years after a child has had the measles and has recovered.
No one knows why, but the virus can awaken from dormancy and trigger an immune response that leads to seizures, a coma and eventually, death. There have been no survivors from the untreatable disease.
The California study and another in Germany both indicate that SSPE affects more people than initially believed. The original estimates pegged it as one in 100,000 children, but in California the numbers were one in 600 people get the disease. According to statistics, one in 1,400 kids under the age of 5 who got measles developed SSPE.
Cherry says the SSPE cases include people who contracted measles since a major outbreak in the United States in 1988. From 1989 and 1991, there have been 55,000 measles cases reported, 123 of which resulted in deaths. Since then, rates dropped to a fraction of the number, and measles was declared eliminated from the United States.
But up to several hundred cases of measles are still reported yearly from travelers bringing measles back from other countries, starting small outbreaks. Measles is one of the most infectious viruses known, easily transmitted by air. The measles virus can be contracted by anyone unless they are vaccinated.
The researchers began looking at SSPE cases after the German study came out. The 16 fatalities in California were diagnosed by autopsy after they died, with a 17th case in hospice care. The average age of the patients was 12 years, but there were three adults aged 20, 30 and 35. All of them had measles before they received the vaccine.
Cherry says there might be more unreported cases across the country, prompting a renewed call for the two-dose vaccine for the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
There are around 20,000 million measles cases all over the world, and over 145,000 children die of the virus annually.