Key disease facts

Measles is a highly infectious viral disease which can lead to serious complications such as pneumonia and encephalitis (inflammation of the brain). In addition, measles infection damages and suppresses the whole immune system. This means that people who have had measles are more likely to catch other infectious diseases. This effect can last for as much as three years after they recover from measles (see 'More Information' below).

In high income regions of the world such as Western Europe, measles causes death in at least 1 in 5000 cases, but as many as 1 in 100 will die in the poorest regions of the world. Worldwide, measles is still a major cause of death, especially among children in resource-poor countries. In 2016, about 90,000 people died of measles. This is the first time global measles deaths have fallen below 100,000 a year, but still represents nearly 250 deaths a day. Over the last twenty years vaccination has dramatically reduced the number of deaths from measles. Since 1990 (when measles killed 872,000 people), over one in 5 of all child deaths averted have been due to measles vaccination.

Between 2001 and 2013 there was a sharp rise in the number of UK measles cases, and three people died. Numbers of cases fell in 2014 and 2015, but increased again in 2016. 531 measles cases were reported in England and Wales in 2016. This is more than five times as many as the total number of cases in 2015. The majority of cases of measles have been in people who are unvaccinated. A significant number of cases have been linked to music festivals and other large public events. Public Health England is advising people to check that they are vaccinated against measles before they go to events like these. For more information see this Public Health England news story .

Numbers of measles cases have also been increasing in European countries. In the year to 31st October 2017, there were 30 deaths from measles in Europe. There have been particularly serious outbreaks in Romania, Italy and Germany. Travellers have brought a number of measles cases into the UK recently, and these are expected to continue. All travellers are advised to check that they are up to date with MMR vaccination before they travel. If you are travelling with a baby, the MMR vaccine can be given from six months of age before travelling to a country where measles is a risk or where an outbreak is taking place. See the Travel Health Pro website for more information.

In the short film below, experts talk about measles and its complications, and the importance of the MMR vaccine.

What are the symptoms?

Measles usually starts with cold-like symptoms, red eyes and sensitivity to light, a high temperature, and greyish-white spots in the mouth and throat. A red-brown rash usually appears a few days later, spreading from behind the ears to the rest of the body.

A child with measles will have to spend about five days in bed and could miss two weeks of school. Even in developed countries such as the UK, around one in every 15 children with measles will develop more serious complications. These can include:

  • ear infection (otitis media) in about 8% of measles cases (about 1 in 12 people)
  • pneumonia in up to 6% of measles cases (up to 1 in 16 people)
  • diarrhoea in about 8% of measles cases (about 1 in 12 people)
  • encephalitis (inflammation of the brain): 1 case for every 1000-2000 cases of measles. Encephalitis can lead to brain damage.

In countries like the UK, measles causes death in about 1 in 5000 cases. See Roald Dahl's account of the death of his daughter Olivia from measles encephalitis in 1962.

In rare cases, measles can lead to a condition called SSPE (subacute sclerosing panencephalitis). SSPE is a persistent viral infection, a devastating complication of measles which leads to a progressive destruction of the central nervous system. It causes dementia, loss of motor control, epilepsy and eventually death. A recent US study has suggested that SSPE may be more common than previously thought. See the video below: 'SSPE - a serious complication of measles: Sarah Walton's story'.

How is it passed on?

Measles is spread through water droplets, coughed or sneezed by infected individuals. People who have measles are infectious from when the first symptoms appear until 4 days after the rash appears.

Measles is one of the most infectious diseases; if a child who is not immunised comes into contact with someone who has measles, it is very likely that they will catch the disease and risk developing serious complications, as this diagram shows:

What protection is available?

The recommended way to protect your child is vaccination with the MMR vaccine.

A life changed by measles: Sarah Clow's story

Sarah Clow fell seriously ill with measles when she was five and was left with lasting disabilities including deafness, partial sight and learning difficulties. Her mother Audrey talks about the impact this has had on Sarah and the whole family. Thanks to Rockhopper TV for the original footage.

Sarah was not vaccinated against measles as a child because she had had eczema. Advice on this has now changed; current advice is that children with eczema can safely receive the MMR vaccine and other vaccines.

SSPE - a serious complication of measles: Sarah Walton's story

Sarah Walton caught measles when she was 11 months old, and at the time recovered well. Twenty four years later, however, she fell ill and was diagnosed with subacute sclerosing panencephalitis (SSPE). This is a rare but devastating complication of measles which leads to a progressive destruction of the central nervous system. In this video Sarah’s mother Jo talks about the impact that SSPE has had on Sarah and the people around her.

For more information about the egg allergy issues raised in the video, click here.

More information about the disease

How measles damages the immune system

As well as causing serious disease, the measles virus attacks the white blood cells that protect us against other diseases. During any infection by bacteria or viruses, our immune system makes antibodies to fight the disease. For many diseases, an 'immune memory' is then created in special cells called T lymphocytes. If we come into contact with that disease again, these cells will 'remember' it and react quickly to fight it, so that we do not become ill. However, measles infection destroys these special white blood cells, wiping out our immunity to diseases we have already had. This makes it much more likely that people who have had measles will catch other infections, even ones they have had before. Research published in 2015 found that it can take the body up to three years to recover from this damage. Before a measles vaccine was available, it is estimated that measles was the direct or indirect cause of over half of all childhood deaths from infectious disease.

Measles cases in the UK

The graph below shows the numbers of measles cases in the UK since 1940. Before a vaccine existed, there were often hundreds of thousands of measles cases every year. In 1967, the year before a vaccine was first introduced, there were 460,407 suspected cases of measles in the UK, and 99 people died from the disease. By the end of the 1980s, vaccination had brought these figures down to around 10,000 suspected cases a year, with one or two deaths, and since then measles cases have fallen still further.

Source: Health Protection Agency archive

However, the number of children receiving the MMR vaccine dipped in the 2000s, and as a result there have been several outbreaks of measles in the UK.

  • Two children in the UK have died of measles since 2006; neither had been given the MMR vaccine.
  • In 2012 there were 2,016 cases of measles.
  • In the first six months of 2013 there were 1,287 cases of measles. 257 of these people were admitted to hospital, including 39 with serious complications such as pneumonia, meningitis and gastroenteritis.
  • During the measles outbreak in Wales in 2013, a young man died of measles complications.

See the Public Health England page on measles deaths for full details of measles deaths since 1980.

During 2013, 10,271 cases of measles were reported within the European Union. Eight people developed measles encephalitis (infection of the brain), and three died.

The graph below shows the rise in the overall number of UK measles cases between 2001 and 2016 (confirmed by laboratory testing). Numbers of cases fell in 2014 and 2015, but rose again in 2016, with 531 measles cases reported - more than five times as many as the total number of cases in 2015.

Source: Public Health England and the Health Protection Agency archive

Page last updated: 
Monday, December 18, 2017