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Measles warning after rare brain disorder found in Australia

A recent case in a Victorian hospital highlights the terrible complications that can arise from measles, a vaccine-preventable disease.

A team from Western Health and the Victorian Infectious Diseases Reference Laboratory, led by Dr Eloise Williams, wrote about the case in today’s Medical Journal of Australia to show one possible consequence if Australia’s measles vaccination rates don’t improve.

A 23-year-old woman presented with a seizure after experiencing 9 months of progressive neurological decline. She had experienced involuntary jerks, visual disturbance and reduced speech, resulting in falls, impaired ability to perform activities of daily living and urinary incontinence.

The woman had migrated from the Philippines 2 years earlier and her family reported normal neurodevelopment. Magnetic resonance imaging of the brain showed cerebral volume loss and extensive white matter changes. She had a strong positive result for measles antibodies in serum and cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) which, combined with clinical features of progressive mental deterioration, led to a diagnosis of probable subacute sclerosing panencephalitis (SSPE).

“SSPE is a fatal, progressive neurodegenerative disease caused by persistent infection with an altered measles virus. Although rare, SSPE should be considered in the differential diagnosis of subacute neurological deterioration and myoclonus, especially in incompletely vaccinated patients,” the authors explained.

The authors noted that 96-99% of the population are required to be vaccinated to prevent sustained measles transmission.

“In Australia in 2012, only 91.9% of children aged 5 years had received two doses of measles vaccine,” they wrote.

There were 154 confirmed cases of measles in 2013 in Australia and 335 cases in 2014.