Dr. James Cherry, primary editor of the Textbook of Pediatric Infectious Diseases, said the deadly complication SSPE illustrates the need for measles-vaccination rates to remain as high as possible.
LOS ANGELES — Measles is commonly thought to be a one-time deal: Get it once, survive and you’re immune for life.
But like a Trojan horse, the virus can find a way to hide from a baby’s undeveloped immune system. The baby will survive, but within his or her body, a weakened form of the measles lurks, beginning to infect the brain.
Over the ensuing years, the disease gets stronger. Then the infected person, long past infancy, experiences mood swings and behavioral problems. Convulsions, coma and death follow.
There is no cure. It is always fatal.
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There were at least 11 cases of this deadly complication, known as SSPE, or subacute sclerosing panencephalitis, after the 1988-91 measles epidemic in the United States, which infected more than 55,000.
Dr. James Cherry, primary editor of the Textbook of Pediatric Infectious Diseases and a UCLA professor, said the complication illustrates the need for measles-vaccination rates to remain as high as possible, as inoculations have fallen in the past decade.
“Measles is not a benign disease,” Cherry said. And SSPE, he said, is a “horrible disease.”
The most vulnerable to getting SSPE are those younger than 2, who have an undeveloped immune system. Especially at risk are babies too young to get their first measles shot, which happens at 12 months.
That’s what happened to Ramon “Junior” Cortes, who was born in Orange County 26 years ago.
His mother, Marissa Cortes-Torres, was 24 when she gave birth to him. When Junior was a month old, Cortes-Torres became very ill.
Doctors didn’t figure out she had contracted measles until the baby fell ill. (Cortes-Torres had been vaccinated in the 1960s, when mistakes were often made in administering the newly introduced inoculation.)
The infant was in the hospital for two months, hooked up to tubes, struggling to breathe.
By the time Junior was 3 months old, he seemed to have recovered.
Years later, in kindergarten in Escondido, he would stand when a teacher told him to sit. At home, he would arbitrarily take clothes out of drawers. When he biked or roller-bladed, the boy would take surprising spills, bruising his legs.
Finally, a neurologist at Rady Children’s Hospital in San Diego said to Cortes-Torres: “I’m sorry to tell you: Your son is going to die.”
SSPE, she was told, “attacks the nervous system and it destroys the brain.”
It was the day before her son turned 7.
Soon, the boy who used to “swim like a little fish” had to use a wheelchair. He then started to suffer tremors so severe he couldn’t feed himself. He became so frustrated that he would push his food away and refuse to eat. He had to wear diapers again. Seizures sapped his strength. When he hallucinated, all Cortes-Torres could do to try to soothe him was say, “Junior, Junior. Mommy’s here.”
One day, after he turned 9, he laughed while watching “Barney & Friends,” but he wasn’t looking at the television. “I put my hand in front of his eyes,” Cortes-Torres said. “He was blind.”
Junior died a month later.
There have been at least 16 cases of SSPE in California since 1998, which is likely an undercount because not all cases may be diagnosed and they aren’t required to be reported to the state, according to the Department of Public Health. There are several suspected cases that have not been confirmed.
Seven of the 16 confirmed cases involved people born in the United States. The nine other cases involved people born outside of the country who fell ill with SSPE in California.
Kathleen Harriman, chief of the state’s Vaccine-Preventable Diseases Epidemiology Section, said she often hears from people who say that getting a disease like measles naturally is best. “I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve heard that … ‘My child will be fine, because I feed them really good food and they’re well-nourished and so they will survive measles,’ ” Harriman said. “This is a clear example where it’s not better to get a natural infection.”
Officials say they hear a report about SSPE about once a year in California.
In the Bay Area, a 4-year-old boy is dying of SSPE, said Dr. Catherine Sonquist Forest, medical director of the Stanford Health Care clinic in Los Altos.
The boy, born in the United States, was 5 months old when he was infected. After he turned 3, the once-healthy child began to struggle with behavioral problems and seizures. Soon he was diagnosed with SSPE.
He is now in hospice care. His eyes are open, but he can no longer move on his own and cannot respond to commands.
“He was exposed because other people weren’t immunized,” Forest said.