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During the early 20th century, ten thousand children died every year from measles in the UK. Since then, the disease has become far less dangerous; the number of children dying every year fell to less than a hundred before the introduction of immunisation.

Measles is a highly infectious disease. The incubation period (the time from contact with someone with the illness to the first signs of developing the disease) is usually 10 -11 days, though may be as long as three weeks.

The first signs of measles are a fever, cough, runny nose and conjunctivitis (red sticky eyes). After about 4 days a rash appears, initially on the neck and spreading over the next 2-3 days to the rest of the body including the face, arms and legs. Over the next few days, the rash fades, the temperature returns to normal and the child returns to good health.

The large majority of children with measles are unwell for a week or so, following which they make a swift and full recovery. However,
complications, occasionally severe, can occur.

Pneumonia, or another chest infection, occurs in 1 in 26 children.
1 in 40 children will suffer an ear infection (otitis media).
Both these can usually be successfully treated with antibiotics.
A febrile convulsion (fit as a result of a fever) affects 1 in 500 children.
The measles virus infects the brain (encephalitis) in 1 in 1,000 cases; of these 1 in 7 will die.

Complications are more likely to occur in children under one year of age and in adults.

SSPE (Subacute sclerosing panencephalitis) is, thankfully, very rare as it is a terrible disease in which the measles virus infects the brain. Instead of causing normal encephalitis, a slow insidious disease develops, resulting in inevitable death some years later. This probably occurs in 1 in every 200,000 cases. Children do die from measles but this is rare in the UK, especially in healthy, well-nourished children. In the UK in the 1970s, the
death rate was around 1 in 7,000 cases, though this was less than 1 in 10,000 in healthy children.

The benefits of measles

There is increasing evidence that contracting measles as a child could have a positive effect on the immune system. It may reduce the risk of getting asthma and allergies. Research also suggested that many childhood infections, but especially measles, may help prevent leukaemia and lymphoma, cancers of the blood, in later life.

Picture courtesy CDC