How Measles Affects the Brain

Article | The Houston Institute of Neurology for Kids

By: Jacob Marchesano

In light of the recent measles outbreak in the United States, now is the best time to vaccinate your child. As Roald Dahl earnestly explained in his 1988 letter about losing his daughter to measles in 1962, it is a hugely preventable disease, one that only requires a vaccination to avoid it altogether. So, for parents, it is highly recommended to be conscious of the nature of this viral disease and the health of your child. Measles have many health implications, and amongst them, neurological implications are one of them.  

Measles is an extremely contagious viral disease and it is in fact, beyond rash and fever. It can affect the nervous system when the virus spreads further into the brain, swelling it up and leading to life-threatening conditions. It is called measles encephalitis – what Roald Dahl’s 7-year old daughter had.  

There are three forms of encephalitis: acute postinfectious encephalitis reflects an autoimmune reaction, acute progressive infectious encephalitis assumes a direct attack by the virus and subacute sclerosing panencephalitis (SSPE) which is still extensively analyzed for its viral persistence in the brain. SSPE is a very rare case; only 1 in 5000 people with measles will develop it, but it is lethal. It is important to know that usually in severe measles cases does brain damage could occur; however, you cannot entirely eliminate the chances of brain damage in mild cases either. The initial symptoms of possible brain damage, unfortunately does not show up right away; it can take up to eight years where the child might start showing behavioral changes such as sleeping problems or acting abnormally. As the viral disease is a degenerative process, the brain suffers from inflammation, and it gets more physically damaged overtime.  

Other prevalent complications of measles are pneumonia, showing flu symptoms, ear infections in about 1 in 10 children that could result in permanent hearing loss.   There were 644 measles cases in 2014 in the United States and they have already been 84 cases in 2015. The measles virus is airborne and from an infected person, it could spread up to 18 people in average.