Measles: High risk of fatal late effects

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According to scientists, the risk of fatal late effects in measles is higher than previously assumed

In view of the increasing number of measles cases in Germany, the discussion about the introduction of an obligation to vaccinate does not stop. Scientists from the University of Würzburg and the Bavarian State Office for Health and Food Safety (LGL) have now found that the risk of fatal late effects from a measles infection is significantly higher than previously thought. The study says that children under the age of one are particularly at risk because they are too young to be vaccinated. That is why all adults and children have to be vaccinated in order to protect people for whom vaccination is not possible for medical reasons, the scientists demand. One of the particularly dramatic long-term consequences of measles infection is sclerosing panencephalitis (SSPE), a serious inflammation of the brain that is always fatal.

Inflammation of the brain as a fatal late consequence of measles The risk of fatal late consequences from measles is much higher than previously thought. This is shown by a study by the University of Würzburg and the Bavarian State Office for Health and Food Safety (LGL), which was published in the specialist journal "Plos One". According to this, babies who are too young to be vaccinated are particularly at risk.

Years after the actual outbreak of measles, a dangerous inflammation of the brain can develop, sclerosing panencephalitis (SSPE), which is fatal to those affected. “The SSPE mainly affects children and usually only occurs several years after the acute measles disease. It leads to a gradual loss of all mental abilities and ends in a coma in which those affected die after a few months or even years. Treatment of SSPE is not possible, ”explained Benedikt Weißbrich, research assistant at the Institute for Virology and Immunobiology at the University of Würzburg.

The risk of dangerous brain inflammation from measles is 1 in 1,330 among children under the age of five. Experts previously assumed that this late consequence of measles only occurs in one in 100,000 patients. "However, recent studies from Great Britain and the USA suggested that the risk is significantly greater," explained Weißbrich. The German researchers calculated an average risk for children under five years of 1 to 1,330. The dreaded inflammation of the brain thus occurs far more frequently than previously thought.

"We recorded SSPE cases in children who were treated in German clinics between 2003 and 2009," reported Weißbrich. All patients were younger than five years when measles broke out in them. 42,600 measles infections were recorded during the same period. "Our study provides data on the frequency of SSPE cases in Germany for the first time and shows that the risk of SSPE in measles infections in the first few years of life is considerable and by no means negligible," emphasized the researcher.

Weißbrich therefore considers vaccination against measles to be unavoidable. Vaccination is only possible in children after they have reached the age of 11 months. "Especially children in the first year of life, for whom the SSPE risk is the highest, cannot be protected from the SSPE by measles vaccination," explained the expert, calling on parents to have their children vaccinated without fail. "Only if as many people as possible are immune to measles is it possible to eliminate the disease and thus protect children in the first year of life from a terrible disease."

Discussion about introduction of compulsory vaccination does not stop So far, 1,040 cases of measles have been registered in Germany this year. The requirement for vaccination is becoming louder among health experts, specialists and politicians. A survey by the health insurance company DAK-Gesundheit also showed that almost 80 percent of the participants would welcome the introduction of a mandatory vaccination.

Experts such as Jan Leidel, head of the Robert Koch Institute's (RKI) permanent vaccination committee (STIKO), and Jens Ackermann, chairman of the FDP in the health committee, argue against compulsory vaccination. Above all, it is a question of the consequences that the parents face if they do not comply. Ackermann asked the “Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung” whether these parents should be put in prison. Instead of compulsory vaccination, Leidel advocates better education and the use of other existing measures. The World Health Organization (WHO) has set itself the goal of eradicating measles in Europe by 2015. (ag)

Image: Sebastian Karkus /

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