When the five-month-old son of Marissa Santos had recovered from measles, more commonly known as “tigdas,” Santos thought that that would be her son’s last encounter with the measles virus. Six years later, Santos’ son started to show symptoms of a rare and serious complication caused by measles—subacute sclerosing panencephalitis or SSPE. Santos says she hopes parents can take advantage of vaccination to help prevent measles and SSPE among their children.
Measles is a serious and highly contagious viral respiratory disease. The symptoms of measles include high-grade fever, rashes, and the three C’s—namely cough, conjunctivitis, and coryza. Measles can result in serious complications even among previously healthy children. The virus that causes measles can mutate and cause fatal complications.
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that in 2018, more than 140,000 people—most of them children under five years old—died of measles. This was despite the availability of a safe and effective vaccine against the disease. According to the WHO, before the measles vaccine became widely used, major measles epidemics happened around every two to three years. Measles led to an estimated 2.6 million deaths per year.
In the Philippines, the Department of Health (DOH) reported in 2020 that about 2.4 million children under the age of five are susceptible to measles. The DOH also reported from 2008 to 2017, that there had been a decline from above 80 percent to below 70 percent in the first dose of measles vaccine in the Philippines. The DOH had declared measles outbreaks in 2014 and 2019. As with the cases of some countries, outbreaks happened despite attempts at wider immunization coverage.
Vaccination is the administration of a vaccine to help the immune system develop protection from disease. Vaccines contain a microorganism or virus in a weakened, live, or killed state, or proteins or toxins from the organism.
A complication of measles
According to Dr. Lukban, SSPE occurs in 0.5 to five cases per million population worldwide, although these figures depend on vaccination rates. SSPE may occur when the measles virus mutates, Dr. Lukban said. Unrecognized by the body's immune system, the virus enters the nerves, reaches the brain of a patient, and remains dormant until several years later when it reactivates.
Symptoms of SSPE include involuntary muscle movements, seizures, and behavioral changes including diminished performance in school. With less than five percent of cases having remission, SSPE patients often eventually become unable to swallow, speak, see, hear, and interact with others. The last stage of SSPE is characterized by coma or long coma.
“’Yung nightmare sa akin no’n, sinasabi ni Dr Lukban, was that there was no cure [The nightmare for me then was when Dr. Lukban said that there was no cure for SSPE],” Santos said.
Marissa and Jan had joined a support group in the hope of finding a cure for the disease. However, after ten years of enduring SSPE, Jan died in 2014 at 25 years old.