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Woman faces death from measles case

April 18, 2016
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Doctors fear a young Melbourne woman is dying from a complication of measles – a preventable disease that higher rates of immunisation could eradicate.

Over the past two years the woman , in her 20s, has gone from being a fit and healthy student to somebody who cannot walk or talk. She is bed-bound and suffers regular seizures at home, where her family cares for her 24 hours a day.

Dr Eloise Williams, an infectious diseases registrar, said the woman presented to the Western Hospital in Footscray last year suffering from involuntary jerks in her arms and legs, visual disturbances and reduced speech, which had developed over nine months. The mysterious symptoms were causing her to fall over and wet herself.

After several weeks of tests, doctors realised she had SSPE (subacute sclerosing panencephalitis ) – a rare complication of measles that usually develops six to eight years after infection. The condition kills 95 per cent of people who get it.

Dr Williams, who now works at the Alfred Hospital, said the woman had migrated from the Philippines two years before she fell ill and had an unclear vaccination history . Her family believed she had been vaccinated against measles but there was no proof she had received the two doses that offer 99 per cent protection against the disease.

The woman is now being treated with a drug that appears to have stabilised her symptoms, but Dr Williams said she could not do anything for herself. It is unclear how much she understands when people talk to her.

‘‘ Her family feel she can understand some of the things they are saying. However, she is unable to communicate verbally back to them,’’ Dr Williams said. ‘‘ She was variably able to respond to set commands and yes-no questions in hospital, but complex tasks she was not able to carry out.’’

The case, believed to be only the second one documented in Australia , has been detailed in the Medical Journal of Australia to highlight the terrible damage measles can do.

In 2014, the World Health Organisation said Australia had eliminated local strains of measles through high levels of vaccination, but there have still been hundreds of cases in recent years, causing concern about immunisation rates.

The outbreaks have most likely been started by overseas travellers or migrants from in countries where the disease is more prevalent.

If an infectious person meets a community with vaccination rates below about 96 per cent, the highly contagious viral disease can take off.

National Health Performance Authority data shows about one in 10 Australian children was not fully immunised in 2014-15 . There were 154 cases of measles in 2013 in Australia and 335 cases in 2014.

An outbreak recently affected Melbourne’s north, causing several people to be hospitalised in isolation to protect other patients.

Another study published in the Medical Journal of Australia on Monday said that despite fears more Australians are adopting anti-vaccination views, the proportion of parents who oppose vaccination has remained stable at about 3 per cent since 2001.

The research was conducted by Dr Frank Beard and colleagues from the National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance at The Children’s Hospital at Westmead and the University of Sydney.

The Australian government recommends children receive two doses of a measles vaccine, given at one year and 18 months.

Under the Turnbull government’s new ‘‘ no jab, no pay’ ’ policy, families of unvaccinated children will no longer receive family and childcare benefits .

‘Her family feel she can

understand some things’

Dr Eloise Williams, Western Hospital

Published by: The Age, 18/04/2016

Julia Medew

Health Editor