Medical Q&As

Measles - fatal complications?

It has been said that measles is a serious infection and that it can result in death. What causes death from measles?

Complications from measles are quite common. It has been established that 1 in 20 cases develop ear infections and 1 in 100 develop bacterial and lung infections such as pneumonia. It has also been established that 1 in 1,000 cases develop encephalitis or inflammation of the brain and 25% of these are left with permanent brain damage. The most severe complication of measles is SSPE (subacute sclerosing panencephalitis), which is a slowly progressive infection of the brain that is eventually fatal. This occurs in 1 in 100,000 case. Two years ago there was a severe outbreak of measles on the north side of Dublin. There were 1,600 cases of measles and three of those children died. Two died from pneumonia and one died from encephalitis. Three fatalities out of 1,600 cases is a very high fatality rate and underlines the fact that measles is not a trivial illness. I had a patient who died a few years ago in his late thirties from long-standing complications related to measles that he acquired as a young child. His life was plagued by poor health and he was hospitalised on many occasions. The original problem was that he developed pneumonia as a result of measles, which in turn caused extensive damage to his lungs. This in turn lead to heart strain that progressed to the point that he was unable to work and was on home oxygen for most of the day. A similar blighted life could be the fate of some Irish child today that developed measles through not being vaccinated.