The Clinical Significance of Measles: A Review
The Clinical Significance of Measles: A Review
Robert T. Perry 1 2
Neal A. Halsey 0 1
0 Department of International Health, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health , Baltimore, Maryland , USA
1 Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health , w5515, 615 N. Wolfe St., Baltimore, MD 21205 , USA
2 National Immunization Program, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention , Atlanta , Georgia
Forty years after effective vaccines were licensed, measles continues to cause death and severe disease in children worldwide. Complications from measles can occur in almost every organ system. Pneumonia, croup, and encephalitis are common causes of death; encephalitis is the most common cause of long-term sequelae. Measles remains a common cause of blindness in developing countries. Complication rates are higher in those !5 and 120 years old, although croup and otitis media are more common in those !2 years old and encephalitis in older children and adults. Complication rates are increased by immune deficiency disorders, malnutrition, vitamin A deficiency, intense exposures to measles, and lack of previous measles vaccination. Case-fatality rates have decreased with improvements in socioeconomic status in many countries but remain high in developing countries.
After an incubation period of 8–12 days, measles begins
with increasing fever (to 39 C–40.5 C) and cough,
coryza, and conjunctivitis [
]. Symptoms intensify over
the 2–4 days before the onset of rash and peak on the
first day of rash . The rash is usually first noted on
the face and neck, appearing as discrete erythematous
patches 3–8 mm in diameter. The lesions increase in
number for 2 or 3 days, especially on the trunk and
the face, where they frequently become confluent
(figure 1). Discrete lesions are usually seen on the distal
extremities, and with careful observation, small
N.H. has research grants from Glaxo SmithKline (a manufacturer of measles
vaccine) for studies of Haemophilus influenzae type b and Lyme disease vaccines.
Financial support: CDC cooperative agreement for the Clinical Immunization
Safety Assessment (CISA) Network.
bers of lesions can be found on the palms of 25%–50%
of those infected. The rash lasts for 3–7 days and then
fades in the same manner as it appeared, sometimes
ending with a fine desquamation that may go unnoticed
in children who are bathed daily. An exaggerated
desquamation is commonly seen in malnourished children
6, 9, 10
]. Fever usually persists for 2 or 3 days after
the onset of the rash, and the cough may persist for as
many as 10 days.
Koplik’s spots usually appear 1 day before the onset
of rash and persist for 2 or 3 days. These bluish-white,
slightly raised, 2- to 3-mm-diameter lesions on an
erythematous base appear on the buccal mucosa, usually
opposite the first molar, and occasionally on the soft
palate, conjunctiva, and vaginal mucosa [
spots have been reported in 60%–70% of persons with
measles but are probably present in most persons who
develop measles . An irregular blotchy enanthem
may be present in other areas of the buccal mucosa.
Photophobia from iridocyclitis, sore throat, headache,
abdominal pain, and generalized mild lymphadenopathy
are also common.
Measles is transmitted by the respiratory route and
is highly infectious. Infectivity is greatest in the 3 days
before the onset of rash, and 75%–90% of susceptible
household contacts develop the disease [
early prerash symptoms are similar to those of other
common respiratory illnesses, and affected persons
often participate in routine social activities, facilitating
transmission. Numerous outbreaks of disease in highly
vaccinated populations occur when children in the first few days of
illness attend sporting events as participants or spectators,
especially indoor events such as basketball and wrestling
]. Outbreaks also occur when ill children are
brought to a doctor’s office or emergency room for evaluation
for fever, irritability, or rash [
MILD, MODIFIED, AND ATYPICAL MEASLES
Milder forms of measles occur in children and adults with
preexisting partial immunity. Infants who have low levels of passively
acquired maternal antibody and persons who receive blood
products that contain antibody often have subclinical infections or
minimal symptoms that may not be diagnosed as measles [
]. Vaccination protects 190% of recipients against disease,
but after exposure to natural measles, some vaccinees develop
boosts in antibody associated with mild symptoms and may
have rash with little or no fever or nonspecific respiratory
]. People with inapparent subclinical measles virus
infections are not known to transmit measles virus to household
Atypical measles occurred in children who received
formalininactivated (killed) measles vaccine that was in use in the United
States from 1963 to 1968 [
]. These children developed high
fever, a rash that was most prominent on the extremities and
often included petechiae, and a high rate of pneumonitis [
]. Recent studies in monkeys indicate that this illness was
caused by antigen-antibody immune complexes resulting from
incomplete maturation of the antibody response to the vaccine
Measles virus infects multiple organ systems and targets
epithelial, reticuloendothelial, and white blood cells, including
monocytes, macrophages, and T lymphocytes [
Pathological studies of children dying during acute measles have found
multinucleated giant cells typical of measles virus infection
throughout the respiratory and gastrointestinal tracts and in
most lymphoid tissues [
]. Measles virus infection leads
to a decline in CD4 lymphocytes, starting before the onset of
rash and lasting for up to 1 month, and resulting in suppression
of delayed-type hypersensitivity as measured by anergy to skin
test antigens, including tuberculosis antigen [
measles predisposes to reactivation of latent Mycobacterium
tuberculosis infections has been a subject of debate .
Complications from measles have been reported in every
organ system (table 1). Many of these complications are caused
by disruption of epithelial surfaces and immunosuppression
]. Rates of complications from measles vary by age (table
2) and underlying conditions.
Otitis media. Otitis media is the most common complication
of measles reported in the United States and occurs in 14% of
children !5 years old (table 2). Presumably, inflammation of
the epithelial surface of the eustachian tube causes obstruction
and secondary bacterial infection. Lower rates of otitis media
are noted with increasing age, most likely a function of the
increasing diameter of the eustachian tube and the decreasing
risk of obstruction.
Laryngotracheobronchitis. Laryngotracheobronchitis or
“measles croup” was noted in 9%–32% of US children hospitalized
with measles [
]. The majority of affected children were
!2 years old. In one-third to one-half of such cases, culture of
samples from the trachea yields positive results for bacterial
pathogens, with a purulent exudate and evidence of secondary
bacterial tracheitis, pneumonia, or both. The most commonly
cultured organism is Staphylococcus aureus, although
Complications associated with measles by organ system.
coccus pneumoniae, Haemophilus influenzae, Pseudomonas
aeruginosa, Escherichia coli, and Enterobacter species have also been
]. In a series of 6 children intubated
because of measles croup, viral cultures revealed that 1 child was
coinfected with adenovirus and another with herpes simplex
virus (HSV) [
]. Laryngotracheobronchitis was the second
most common cause of death in US children hospitalized with
measles, after pneumonia [
Pneumonia. Measles infects the respiratory tracts of nearly
all affected persons. Pneumonia is the most common severe
complication of measles and accounts for most
measles-associated deaths [
]. In studies of unselected hospitalized children
with measles, 55% had radiographic changes of
bronchopneumonia, consolidation, or other infiltrates; 77% of children with
severe disease and 41% of children with mild disease had
radiographic changes [
]. In recent years, pneumonia was
present in 9% of children !5 years old with measles in the United
States (table 2), in 0%–8% of cases during outbreaks [
and in 49%–57% of adults [
Pneumonia may be caused by measles virus alone, secondary
viral infection with adenovirus or HSV, or secondary bacterial
39, 80, 90
]. Measles is one cause of Hecht’s giant
cell pneumonia, which usually occurs in immunocompromised
persons but can occur in otherwise normal adults and children
]. Studies that included culture of blood, lung
punctures, or tracheal aspirations revealed bacteria as the cause of
25%–35% of measles-associated pneumonia. S. pneumoniae, S.
aureus, and H. influenzae were the most commonly isolated
]. Other bacteria (e.g., Pseudomonas species,
Klebsiella pneumoniae, and E. coli) are less common causes of severe
pneumonia associated with measles. In studies of young adult
military recruits with pneumonia associated with measles,
Neisseria meningitidis was a probable cause in some cases [
Pneumomediastinum and mediastinal emphysema have been
reported as complications of measles in several countries [
60, 90, 96
]. Some children have the clinical pattern of
bronchiolitis . Because viral cultures are not always done, the
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possibility of coinfection with other respiratory viruses cannot
be ruled out.
Measles pneumonia in immunocompromised patients.
Among immunocompromised persons, diffuse progressive
pneumonitis caused by the measles virus is the most common
cause of death [
]. These patients may first have typical
measles with pneumonia, or they may have a nonspecific illness
without rash followed by pneumonitis without a rash. In
general, signs of pneumonitis develop in the 2 weeks after the first
onset of symptoms [
90, 96, 105
]. Other patients have had
reappearance of rash and pneumonitis after long intervals
following “classical” measles [
Measles probably infects the intestinal tracts of most persons
with measles. A gastric biopsy obtained the day before rash
onset from a 44-year-old man revealed characteristic giant cells
that were positive for measles by immunologic staining, and 8
of 10 children exposed to the man subsequently developed
]. Several cases of appendicitis have developed
before and during measles rash, and characteristic giant cells
typical for measles have been found in appendix tissue [
Diarrhea. In the United States, 8% of all reported measles
cases during 1987–2000 were complicated by diarrhea. Rates
were higher in those !5 or 130 years old (table 2). Among
hospitalized persons with measles in the United States, 30%–
70% had diarrhea [
73–78, 88, 89
]. Feachem and Koblinsky
 found that 15%–63% of measles cases from
communitybased studies from developing countries in the prevaccine era
were complicated by diarrhea and that 9%–77% of all diarrheal
deaths were measles-associated. Stools of children with
measlesassociated diarrhea usually have the same bacteria as those of
children with diarrhea not associated with measles [
Measles-associated diarrhea typically begins just before rash onset
], suggesting that measles virus is responsible for most of the
Complications by age for reported measles cases, United States, 1987–2000.
diarrhea episodes but that secondary bacterial or viral infections
may contribute to the severity and duration of illness.
Dehydration was found in 32% of hospitalized patients in
]. Morley [
] first described the high rates
of gastrointestinal complications that occurred after measles in
developing countries: mouth sores, decreased food intake,
protracted diarrhea, weight loss, and precipitation of severe protein
calorie malnutrition . Noma (cancrum oris), a progressive
oral lesion that destroys orofacial tissue, has been noted after
measles in Africa [
] and India [
]. In young adults,
measles is associated with hepatitis, hypocalcemia, and elevation
of creatinine phosphokinase levels [
66, 67, 85, 89, 120–123
Febrile seizures. Febrile seizures occur in 0.1%–2.3% of
children with measles in the United States and England [
] and are usually benign and not associated with
residual damage. Most children with uncomplicated measles have
changes visible on electroencephalography, but these changes
are most likely due to fever and other metabolic changes [
]. Postinfectious encephalomyelitis (PIE) occurs in 1–3
per 1000 infected persons, usually 3–10 days after onset of rash
]. Higher rates of PIE due to measles occur in
adolescents and adults than in school-aged children (table 2 [
]). PIE usually begins with the abrupt onset of new
fever, seizures, altered mental status, and multifocal
neurological signs [
]. Although measles virus was found in
cerebrovascular endothelial cells in a person who died during the
first few days of rash , the virus usually is not found in
the central nervous systems of persons with PIE. PIE appears
to be caused by an abnormal immune response that affects
myelin basic protein [
]. As many as 25% of people with
PIE due to measles die, and ∼33% of survivors have lifelong
neurological sequelae, including severe retardation, motor
impairment, blindness, and sometimes hemiparesis [
Subacute sclerosing panencephalitis (SSPE). SSPE is
caused by persistence of measles virus in central nervous system
tissue for several years, followed by a slowly progressive
infection and demyelination affecting multiple areas of the brain
]. The initial SSPE symptoms, usually decreased school
performance and behavioral disorders, are often misdiagnosed
as psychiatric problems. Subsequently, myoclonic seizures
develop, and a characteristic burst-suppression pattern may be
seen on electroencephalography. Measles antibody is present in
the cerebrospinal fluid. The disease slowly progresses until
affected persons are in a vegetative state. Wild-type measles
viruses, but not measles vaccine viruses, have been found in brain
tissue . SSPE occurs on average in 1 per 8.5 million
persons who develop measles in the United States [
the rate appears to be higher in some other countries [
]. Factors responsible for persistence of measles virus in
these persons are not known, nor is it known whether measles
virus persists in otherwise normal hosts. Geographic clustering
of SSPE occurs in several countries, and there is an increased
incidence in children residing in rural areas. In 2 studies,
children with SSPE had more close exposure to birds than did
control subjects [
]. These data suggest that
as-yet-undefined environmental factors, most likely another infectious
agent, contribute to this disease.
Measles encephalitis in immunocompromised patients. A
progressive central nervous system measles virus infection,
termed “measles inclusion body encephalitis,” occurs in
immunocompromised persons with disorders such as human
immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection or leukemia. Onset is
usually 5 weeks to 6 months after acute measles. The illness
begins with mental-status changes and seizures in the absence
of fever; 180% of deaths occur within weeks [
Conjunctivitis occurs in most persons with measles, and
inflammation of the cornea (keratitis) is common. In a study of
61 Turkish military personnel with measles, 57% had keratitis
detected by slit lamp examination [
]. In well-nourished
persons, these lesions usually heal without residual damage.
However, secondary bacterial (e.g., Pseudomonas or Staphylococcus)
or viral infections (e.g., HSV or adenovirus) can lead to
permanent scarring and blindness [
]. Vitamin A deficiency
predisposes to more severe keratitis, corneal scarring, and blindness
]. Measles associated with vitamin A deficiency is one of the
most common causes of acquired blindness in children in
developing countries [
]. Blindness can also result from
cortical damage from measles encephalitis.
Measles has been hypothesized to cause or contribute to
multiple sclerosis, but available evidence is weak and inconclusive
]. Measles or measles vaccines have been suggested to
contribute to or induce autism, but available data favor rejection
of these hypotheses [
]. Studies from different
laboratories have had conflicting evidence for persistence of measles
virus nucleocapsid in affected tissue from patients with
], Paget’s disease , and inflammatory
bowel disease [
153, 159, 160
FACTORS AFFECTING MEASLES MORBIDITY
AND MORTALITY RATES
Sex. Historically, males have had higher case-fatality rates
than did females [
]. An analysis of vital statistics data
from several countries (primarily in the Americas and Europe)
for the years 1950–1989 suggests that women and girls may
have slightly higher mortality rates after measles than do men
and boys , but recent surveillance data from the United
States and United Kingdom show equal rates of complications
for men and women (table 3[
]). Pregnant women have
an increased risk of complications, including death, following
Age. Complication rates, including mortality, from measles
are highest in children !5 years and adults (table 2). Most
infants are protected during the first months of life via
maternally derived antibodies. However, when immunity is
lacking, measles can be severe [
]. Adults more commonly
have encephalitis, hepatitis, hypocalcemia, or pancreatitis after
measles. The increased severity of measles in adults most likely
reflects the decline in cell-mediated immunity that begins in
]. Okada et al. [
] found that young
infants and adults have more severe and a longer duration of
lymphopenia after measles than do children.
Crowding. Several studies from West Africa [
] show that children who develop measles
after within-household exposure have higher case-fatality rates
than do children who are exposed to measles outside the
household. This phenomenon is most likely secondary to a higher
inoculum from more intensive and prolonged exposure
compared with more casual exposures outside the home. In
Bangladesh, Koenig et al. [
] found that children who lived in a
house of !18.6 m2 had 2.6 times the risk of dying from measles
as that of children who lived in houses of 137 m2. In the United
States, however, no relationship between crowding and measles
case-fatality rates has been found [
Immunosuppression. Children with defects in macrophage
function only (e.g., chronic granulomatous disease) do not have
increased rates of complications from measles [
Suppression of lymphocyte function, resulting from congenital
defects in T lymphocyte function, bone marrow transplantation
], chemotherapy for cancer, or immunosuppressive doses
of steroids, is associated with increased severity of measles [
In a review of 40 measles cases in children with malignancies,
58% of children had pneumonitis, 20% had encephalitis, and
8% had both [
]. Only 60% of the case-patients had typical
measles rash [
]. The fatality rate was 55% overall [
some immunosuppressed patients with measles, multiple organ
systems are affected [
39, 40, 181–183
]. Measles has developed
after bone marrow transplantation even when both donor and
recipient have histories of measles vaccination [
with B cell immune deficiency syndromes without T cell
Complication rates by sex for reported measles cases, United States,
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Measles death:case ratios, New York State, 1910–1969, by decade. Reprinted with permission from [
normalities do not appear to have increased rates of
complications associated with measles.
Children born to HIV-infected women become susceptible
to measles at an earlier age than do children born to
HIVnegative women because the former transmit reduced amounts
of antibodies to their infants [
]. HIV-infected infants
not taking highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART) have
decreased responses to measles vaccination and a faster decline
in vaccine-induced immunity [
]. In New York City during
a 1989 measles outbreak, 6 of the 12 measles deaths were in
persons likely infected with HIV [
]; in 1990 and 1991, 60%
of all measles-related deaths in New Jersey occurred in
HIVinfected children [
]. However, a study of hospitalized
children with measles in Kinshasa, Zaire, found similar rates of
pneumonia, diarrhea, and death after measles in
HIV-seronegative and -seropositive young children [
]. There have been
no studies of HIV-infected children undergoing HAART to
determine how they handle measles virus infection, but survival
rates would be expected to be higher than in untreated children,
because children undergoing HAART have good immune
responses to measles vaccination [
Malnutrition. Malnourished children have impairments
in multiple aspects of the immune system, prolonged excretion
of measles virus, and higher measles case-fatality rates [
]. Measles contributes to the development of
malnutrition because of protein-losing enteropathy, increased
metabolic demands, and decreased food intake. Children who have
measles early in life have significantly lower mean weights for
age than do children of the same age who do not develop
Vitamin A deficiency. Children with clinical or subclinical
vitamin A deficiency in many developing countries have
increased case-fatality rates [
]. Measles and other illnesses
are associated with reductions in serum retinol concentrations
and may induce overt vitamin A deficiency [
Hospitalized US measles patients frequently have deficiencies in
vitamin A; these children are more likely to have pneumonia
or diarrhea after measles [
73, 199, 200
]. In countries with high
measles mortality, treatment with vitamin A once daily for 2
days (200,000 IU for children 12 months of age or 100,000
IU for infants !12 months) is associated with an ∼50%
reduction in mortality [
]. The World Health
Organization recommends vitamin A therapy for all children with
measles . For hospitalized children !2 years old with
measles in the United States, the American Academy of Pediatrics
recommends a single dose of vitamin A (200,000 IU for children
12 months; 100,000 IU for those !12 months) [
BURDEN OF MEASLES
Developed countries. Measles case-fatality rates have declined
in association with economic development and associated
decreased crowding, older age at infection, improved nutrition,
and treatment for secondary pneumonia [
hundred years ago in Scotland, the measles case-fatality rate was
30–40 deaths per 1000 cases . In the United States,
mortality from measles decreased from 25 per 1000 reported cases
in 1912 [
] to 1 per 1000 reported cases in 1962 .
In New York State, measles mortality decreased by 115-fold
long before the introduction of measles vaccination (figure 2)
]. US and UK case-fatality rates were ∼1 per 1000 reported
measles cases from the 1940s through the 1980s [
3, 124, 133,
]. During the past 13 years in the United States, the
casefatality rate has averaged 3 per 1000 reported measles cases
(table 2). This increase is most likely due to more complete
reporting of measles as a cause of death, HIV infections, and
a higher proportion of cases among preschool-aged children
and adults. Annual US measles deaths have declined from 408
in 1962 to 0 from 1993–present .
Developing countries. Measles remains a leading cause of
death and disability-adjusted life-years lost [
Communitybased studies during the 1970s and 1980s revealed measles
casefatality rates of 3%–34% [
], 10–20 times those in
industrialized countries. In 2000, the World Health Organization
estimated that 30–40 million persons developed measles,
resulting in 777,000 deaths, most in sub-Saharan Africa [
This estimate was based on expected case fatality rates. Another
approach based on verbal autopsies gives a lower estimate of
the number of measles-associated deaths [
High case-fatality rates in developing countries are due to a
young age at infection, crowding, underlying immune
deficiency disorders, vitamin A deficiency, and lack of access to
medical care. Before the introduction of measles vaccines,
onethird of children in many developing countries were infected
in the first and second years of life, and most children were
infected before age 5 years [
195, 221, 222
]. An estimated 125
million preschool-aged children are estimated to have vitamin
A deficiency, placing them at high risk for death, severe
infection, or blindness as a result of measles [
]. In recent years,
the use of vitamin A therapy for children with measles, prompt
antibiotic therapy for pneumonia, and older age at time of
infections have contributed to the lower case-fatality rates ( 1%)
in some developing countries (figure 3) [
]. In Latin
America  and southern Africa [
], achieving high
vaccination rates has reduced measles mortality in these regions to
Mortality from measles increases during times of war or
famine. In Ethiopia in 2000, measles was responsible for 22%
of deaths in children !5 years of age and 17% of deaths in
children aged 5–14 years [
]. In Afghanistan, measles
casefatality rates have been as high as 28% [
]. In 2000, there
were at least 1200 measles-related deaths in Afghanistan, and
the case-fatality rate was 8%–13% [
]. Case-fatality rates for
people hospitalized with measles in Sydney, Australia, increased
during years of economic depression but were followed by
lower rates in the 1940s (figure 4) [
IMPACT OF MEASLES VACCINE
Measles vaccination is one of the most cost-effective health
interventions ever developed. Without the vaccine, 5 million
children would die each year from measles—assuming an estimated
case-fatality rate of 2%–3%. Without measles vaccination, the
costs of caring for those with measles in the United States would
be ∼$2.2 billion annually, and the indirect costs would be an
additional $1.6 billion [
]. Each dollar spent on measles vaccine
saves $12–$17 in direct and indirect costs [
Measles vaccination was associated with a 36% decline in
overall death rate and a 57% reduction in the rate of death
directly attributable to measles or diarrhea, respiratory illness,
or malnutrition in Bangladesh [
]. Koenig et al. [
that unvaccinated children of low socioeconomic status were
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Percentage of mortality from measles among patients admitted to Coast Hospital, Sydney, Australia, 1920–1959. Reprinted with permission
2.5 times more likely than children of high socioeconomic
status to die of measles. In vaccinated populations, children of
low socioeconomic status had a risk of death only 50% higher
than that of children of high socioeconomic status [
et al. [
] found that vaccinated children in households of
lower socioeconomic status had a markedly higher chance of
surviving to age 39 months than did unvaccinated children in
households of lower socioeconomic status. Measles vaccination
had a lesser effect on overall child survival in households of
higher socioeconomic status.
In Haiti, Bangladesh, and sub-Saharan Africa, measles
vaccination was associated with an overall reduction in mortality
of 30%–86% [
]. Aaby and colleagues [
hypothesized that measles vaccination is associated with a
reduction in mortality resulting from nonspecific beneficial effects
on the immune system; however, the data are not conclusive.
Measles is an important cause of serious complications and
death. Pneumonia is the most frequent severe complication,
and croup, diarrhea, and malnutrition precipitated by measles
contribute to mortality. Encephalitis occurs in ∼1 of every 1000
children with measles. Concurrent vitamin A deficiency
increases rates of complications. Children !5 years of age, adults,
and persons with malnutrition or immunodeficiency disorders
are at increased risk of complications. In developing countries,
measles case-fatality rates are 10- to 100-fold higher than in
developed countries; ∼770,000 children died of measles in 2000.
Older age at infection, vitamin A supplementation, and
antibiotic therapy for secondary bacterial infections have reduced
measles-associated deaths in the developing world. Eradication
of measles would be a major public health accomplishment.
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