Complications from measles are more serious than people realise, doctors have warned, amid increasing cases and “unfounded fears” about the vaccine.
The preventable viral infection can lead to “many and varied” conditions such as hepatitis, appendicitis, viral meningitis and seizures, experts said in a medical journal.
One potential complication is a progressive neurological disorder that causes permanent nervous system damage and leads to a vegetative state, they said.
Despite measles being preventable, “unfounded fears about the vaccine have prompted it to re-emerge as a health scourge around the world”, the doctors from the Mater Dei Hospital in Malta said.
Declining vaccination levels have led to a decrease in what is known as “herd immunity” to measles, resulting in an increasing emergence which other experts have described as an “unprecedented” global crisis.
It caused more than 140,000 deaths last year, with most of them children under the age of five, separate figures from the World Health Organisation (WHO) suggest.
The authors wrote: “Large outbreaks with fatalities are currently ongoing in European countries which had previously eliminated or interrupted endemic transmission.
“Urgent efforts are needed to ensure global coverage with two-dose measles vaccines through education and strengthening of national immunisation systems.”
They attribute the rise in new cases to negative publicity in the early 2000s linking the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine to autism. The research it was based on has since been discredited.
The doctors made the warning after treating three people with measles who were diagnosed with additional complications in hospital in Malta.
A young man who had only taken one of two doses of the MMR vaccine developed hepatitis, an 18-year-old woman who never received the vaccine was diagnosed with appendicitis and a middle-aged man went on to develop viral meningitis.
The trio recovered fully and were not left with any long-lasting health problems.
Measles suppresses the immune system and about 30% of all reported cases are linked to one or more complications, the doctors said.
These can include pneumonia, febrile seizures and encephalomyelitis (inflammation of the brain and spinal cord) which causes neurological problems.
Professor Stephen Powis, NHS national medical director, said: “Vaccines are simple, safe and effective, and they prevent killer conditions like measles.
“With mumps cases also on the rise, this warning reinforces why we can’t be complacent, why we need a collective effort to boost fallen MMR uptake levels, and why we must take a zero-tolerance approach to anyone spreading myths about evidence-based jabs.”