“Measles is often thought of as a harmless childhood illness when in fact it can have serious complications such as found in our case series,” Dr. Thelma Xerri of Mater Dei Hospital in Msida, Malta, told Reuters Health in an email.
Dr. Xerri and her colleagues describe three adults treated at their hospital for measles complications - including hepatitis, appendicitis and meningitis - in the journal BMJ Case Reports.
The patients were part of the global 2019 spike in measles cases, with major outbreaks in the U.S., Europe, Africa and Asia. The U.S. had 1,282 cases of measles last year, the largest number reported since 1992, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Most people who got sick had not received the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine, which the CDC recommends that children receive in two doses spaced a few years apart.
The first case in the series, a 29-year-old man from Malta, had serious liver inflammation, or hepatitis, due to a measles infection. He had received just one dose of the MMR vaccine as a child. The second, an 18-year-old British woman visiting on holiday, developed measles appendicitis. She had never received the MMR vaccine. The third case, a man aged 42, had blurry vision and headaches, and was diagnosed with meningitis due to measles infection. He had no record of receiving the MMR vaccine.
Claims linking the MMR shot to autism, which have been debunked, are a major factor behind the drop in immunization rates that has led to measles outbreaks, Xerri’s team writes.
Each of the patients described in their report recovered and none suffered lasting effects, but measles complications can kill.
Even uncomplicated measles infections can wipe out a child’s immunity to a host of other childhood diseases, said Dr. Aaron Milstone, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore, who was not involved in the case studies.
Complications like those in the report are rare, but will become increasingly frequent if the number of measles infections continues to grow, Milstone told Reuters Health in a phone interview.
“It’s discouraging to watch these happening, knowing that they’re preventable and a lot of this is based on misinformation,” he said. “Vaccines are safe and they save lives, we just have to keep reminding people of that.”