Measles Complication SSPE Kills Children And Adults Years After The Fact

A measles complication that has been known to kill children, and even adults, years after they recover from the illness isn’t as rare as experts had once thought.

Previously, subacute sclerosing panencephalitis, or SSPE, was thought to have affected about one in 100,000 previous measles patients, making it a fairly rare disease in pre-vaccine times. But new research released on Friday at the IDWeek expo in New Orleans suggests that this measles complication is much more common than once believed. According to MedPage Today, SSPE might occur in about one in 600 patients, depending on how old the patient was when they suffered from measles.

The findings were based on analysis of 17 earlier cases, primarily those who had contracted the illness via the California measles epidemic of 1988 through 1990.

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SSPE is a condition that could lay dormant for several years in a person’s system and might manifest a good four to eight years after a patient is infected by measles. The disease’s classical symptoms initially include behavioral changes, but they progress toward more intense seizures over time until patients become comatose. MedPage Today notes that patients might die about one to three years after the initial SSPE diagnosis.

Study lead author Dr. James Cherry of UCLA acknowledged that this measles complication was once thought to be “quite rare,” even as a German study in 2013 had hinted that the disease occurs in about one in 1,700 measles cases among children five years old or younger. He also warned that the 1-in-600 rate might be a modest estimate, due to the “really striking” revelations in his team’s study.

A separate report from the Washington Post centered on how vaccination is very important for anybody who is eligible to get an MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) vaccine. This could result in herd immunity, which protects children that otherwise wouldn’t be immune to any of the diseases in question, thereby protecting them from SSPE as well. The complication is “100 percent fatal” once it becomes active, which means there is currently no known cure, and clinicians have yet to determine the trigger that reactivates the virus.

Babies below 12 months of age are especially vulnerable to the aforementioned measles complication as their age excludes them from receiving the MMR vaccination. The first dose of this vaccine is typically given out when a child reaches 12 to 15 months of age.

Speaking at a press conference on Friday, Dr. Cherry succinctly and indirectly warned against the dangers of parents delaying vaccinations for their children, or refusing to have their children get the necessary vaccinations to protect them from measles and other infections. Government data shows only 92 percent of children in America aged 19 to 35 months old have gotten MMR vaccines.

“This is really frightening and we need to see that everyone gets vaccinated.”

Measles was once thought to be completely eradicated in the United States, but recent government statistics suggest that the disease is returning to prominence. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there have been 54 cases reported in 2016, which nonetheless remains far from the total 667 cases reported in 2014, and the 189 documented in 2015.

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The figures from 2014 represented the highest number of measles cases in America since the turn of the 21st century. According to the Washington Post, a good chunk of the cases reported in 2014 was from Ohio’s unvaccinated Amish communities. Last year’s count, on the other hand, included 131 cases that originated from an outbreak at Disneyland, the worst in California in 15 years.

Although SSPE is a measles complication that primarily affects children, with the average age of diagnosis at 12-years-old, Dr. Cherry’s study showed that the age range was actually three to 35 years old, suggesting that it could affect adults as well.

[Featured Image by Jeff J. Mitchell/Getty Images]