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Home » SSPE – a dangerous complication from not getting the measles vaccine

SSPE – a dangerous complication from not getting the measles vaccine

One of the tropes of the anti-vaccine religion is that childhood diseases, like measles or whooping cough, are not dangerous. But real science tells us that measles complications, like SSPE (subacute sclerosing panencephalitis) and death, are not innocuous. The ignorance about measles puts our children at risk.

Sadly, some of these vaccine-denying parents have set up “pox parties” to deliberately expose their children to these diseases, because they believe that natural immunity is better than vaccine-induced immunity. Not only is that an appeal to nature fallacy, but it shows ignorance on how immunity works. 

All about measles

Measles (also called rubeola, not to be confused with rubella, or German measles) is a respiratory disease caused by the measles virus. Measles virus normally grows in the cells that line the back of the throat and lungs. Measles is spread through respiration (contact with fluids from an infected person’s nose and mouth, either directly or through aerosol transmission), and is highly contagious — 90% of people without immunity sharing living space with an infected person will catch it. There is no specific treatment for the disease.

Even though vaccine deniers will claim that measles is not a serious health concern, which is not supported by real evidence, it is actually a fairly dangerous disease. According to the CDC, some of the many measles complications are:

  • About 30% of measles cases develop one or more complications.
  • Pneumonia, which is the complication that is most often the cause of death in young children.
  • Ear infections occur in about 1 in 10 measles cases and permanent loss of hearing can result.
  • Diarrhea is reported in about 8% of cases.

These measles complications are more common among children under 5 years of age and adults over 20 years old (usually those with lapsed immunity).

Even in previously healthy children, measles can be a serious illness requiring hospitalization. As many as 1 out of every 20 children with measles gets pneumonia, and about 1 child in every 1,000 who get measles will develop encephalitis, an inflammation of the brain that can lead to convulsions, deafness, and other long-term neurological deficits. For every 1,000 children who get measles, 1 or 2 will die from it. Measles also can make a pregnant woman have a miscarriage, give birth prematurely, or have a low-birth-weight baby.

All about SSPE

Which leads to a story about Angelina, a typical 6-year-old girl growing up in a small town in Bavaria, Germany. Angelina had measles at around seven months old but recovered quickly as most children do, and no one thought much of it. Unfortunately, her mother, Gina noticed something, and said, “In February of this year, we noticed significant abnormalities in our daughter. She often fell off the bike and had substantial language difficulties. When these difficulties became more pronounced, we took her to the hospital.” 

At that point, Angelina was diagnosed with chronic measles encephalitis, or subacute sclerosing panencephalitis (SSPE), a rare chronic, progressive encephalitis that affects primarily children and young adults, caused by a persistent infection of the measles virus. The disease starts with a measles infection, usually before the age of 2 years, followed by approximately 6-15 asymptomatic years. Some researchers think the asymptomatic period is around 5-8 years after the initial disease. Gradually, the disease progresses with psychological and neurological deterioration, which can include personality changes, seizures, and coma. It is incurable. And it only happens as a result of measles.

Her mother said, “The diagnosis of SSPE was a shock to us. Within 8 weeks of our child entering the hospital, she could not walk or talk and has to be artificially fed. Actually, she was supposed to start school this year. This has been very difficult for us all.

According to one of the German physicians familiar with the case, “The course of this disease is not predictable. Between the first measles infection and the onset of SSPE may take many years; however, we know of cases where the disease became symptomatic many years earlier. The measles virus settles in affected patients during the initial infection where it proliferates undetected in the brain. Years later it destroys the brains cells. The disease often progresses in fits and leads to actual holes in the brain. Unfortunately, you cannot stop this progression of the measles virus. From what we know, SSPE is always fatal.”

Since a seven-month-old child is too young to receive the MMR vaccine (for measles, mumps, and rubella), which is first given around one year old, along with a booster just before starting school, what does this have to do with vaccines? It’s very simple. Angelina got the disease from another child or adult who was not properly vaccinated against measles. Whether by accident or intention, Angelina is dying because measles got passed to her, which is something that just shouldn’t happen in this modern world.

Even adults should be vaccinated with MMR. Individuals who were born after 1970 do not have natural immunity against the measles virus or have an unknown immune status because they did not get vaccinated. The German government’s Standing Committee on Vaccination (STIKO) recommends that “all these people who were born after 1970 receive the MMR vaccine. Anyone who has a desire to have children or with friends or acquaintances who have a family with a newborn should be aware of their responsibility to those children, and should be vaccinated immediately.”

Angelina was a “normal” active girl at five years old, just before the onset of SSPE. Now the prognosis for her to live more than a few years is small at best. A heartbreaking story about a child who is going to die because she contracted an ultimately preventable disease.

Vaccines save lives. More than you could ever know.


  1. This article was originally published in June 2014. It has been updated for copyediting, revising formatting issues, and fixing broken links.
  2. Also, check out another story about a child being diagnosed with SSPE after a measles infection published here by Dorit Rubinstein Reiss.



Michael Simpson
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