Measles is a dangerous disease that has resurfaced in recent years. Only in the U.S., there have been 880 reported cases during the first half of 2019. Those numbers are staggering considering the MMR vaccine has been available since 1971. Most people are not aware of the real risks associated with the condition and assume a fever with a mild rash is all that people get after being exposed to it. But that isn’t the case. Measles is not a slightly stronger common cold or even the flu. It is very serious, and as you will see, it involves more than not feeling well.

A bit of history

Measles may not seem that threatening right now, but prior to 1963, it had been known to be a deadly ailment that had killed millions. It was in 1963 that John Franklin Enders with the assistance of Thomas C. Peebles managed to develop the first vaccine against measles, and in 1971, Maurice Hilleman at Merck & Co. created the modern MMR vaccine for mumps, measles, and rubella, which has been responsible for the decline of the condition worldwide.

Short-term effects

The contagious disease known as measles isn’t as benign as most people think. It isn’t a heavy cold. The symptoms such as fever, runny, cough, and conjunctivitis typically appear between 7 and 14 days after it has been contracted. Until that moment, it’s hard to differentiate from a simple cold, but three days later, the fever increases and a rash starts spreading from the head to the rest of the body.

However, as problematic as the fever may be, the complications that follow are much worse. It has been determined that 1 out of 20 children with the disease will develop pneumonia, which is the leading cause of death among children with measles. But that’s not all, 1 out of 1000 children will develop encephalitis (inflammation of the brain) leading to deafness or mental disability.

Long-term effects

While the risk of encephalitis and pneumonia is scary enough, there is another invisible threat around those that experience measles. A Netherlands study, where the blood samples of 77 children were analyzed, revealed lower levels of immune memory cells.

The effect, known as immune amnesia, occurs as a result of the virus eliminating part of the immune system’s memory cells. This results in the immune system forgetting how to fight infections effectively for several years after getting the measles.

Moreover, there is the possibility for anyone that has experienced the condition to develop subacute sclerosing panencephalitis (SSPE). This rare condition of the central nervous system may appear up to ten years after getting measles. It may seem to appear out of nowhere although the condition is quite rare as 4 to 11 out of 100000 people are likely to get affected by it. The risk is even higher in children younger than two years old.

Although it may seem like a common cold at the beginning, measles is much worse. It isn’t even about the rash or the fever. Life-threatening complications such as pneumonia, encephalitis, immune amnesia, and SSPE can appear. Thankfully, there is a proven vaccine that has been around for decades, so effective prevention of this potentially destructive disease is achievable.