Measles is a highly infectious viral disease which can lead to serious complications. In high income regions of the world such as Western Europe, it 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 2011, 158,000 people died of measles – an average of 432 every day. However, 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.

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: 1 case for every 1000-2000 cases of measles. Encephalitis can lead to brain damage.

In some cases, measles can cause death. See Roald Dahl's account of the death of his daughter Olivia from measles encephalitis.

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). SSPE is a persistent viral infection, a rare but 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. 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.

Measles 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: Source: Public Health England

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.

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 2013 (confirmed by laboratory testing). Numbers of cases fell in 2014.

Source: Public Health England

Published by Sarah Loving
Medical content reviewed by Professor Andrew Pollard
Please email us if you have comments about the Vaccine Knowledge website. We can’t answer all the individual queries we get, but we will use your suggestions and questions to improve the website. You should consult your doctor or other healthcare provider if you need specific advice on vaccines for you or your child.
Last updated 29 February 2016

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'Measles: a dangerous disease', by Roald Dahl

PHE infographic: the impact of vaccination on Measles and other diseases

'Why aren't we more scared of measles?'

A life changed by measles Sarah Clow's story

SSPE: a serious complication of measles

Measles: Rachel's Story (NHS Choices)