Two recovering patients share unsettling details on the side effects of the measles virus.
By Rochel Burstyn
It’s been three weeks since Z, 55, an anonymous Oak Park resident, discovered he had the measles — and he’s still suffering side effects that include lingering bronchitis and blurred vision.
Z doesn’t know exactly when he contracted the disease, but he’s confident he was in contact with an Israeli visitor, who was the first confirmed case on March 13, or at least his airborne germs, which are contagious for up to two hours after the measles-infected person leaves the area.
Measles hasn’t been seen in years and it seems to be new terrain for many doctors. As of Friday, 38 cases have been confirmed in Oakland County and one in Wayne County, including a student at Derby Middle School in Birmingham Public Schools.
“One doctor told me he didn’t even learn about measles in medical school! It was considered obsolete,” Z said. “[On March 16,] I went to the same doctor who had diagnosed Patient Zero just a few days before with the measles — and it didn’t even come up.”
Thinking he had just an ordinary virus, Z went to Kroger to pick up some flu medication, inadvertently spreading the highly contagious disease. It wasn’t until March 20 that spots appeared on his body and his doctor called the health department; staffers were at his door within the hour. The next day he was informed he had tested positive for measles.
“I’m fully vaccinated to the standard of when I was born,” Z said. When he contracted the virus, he had not known he’d need a booster. Regulations have changed as health departments are learning what to advise as new cases appear.
“It is important to emphasize that everyone who can should get vaccinated, especially people born between 1957-1985. It’s free with most insurances and often at county health departments. In Oakland County, it is definitely free,” Z said.
Misinformation went viral after it became public that his wife and son, 10, also exhibited symptoms, but both tested negative for measles.
“It is a very, very brutal virus,” Z said. “I lost 9 real pounds, not water. I had no appetite. I had a fever of 102 for six days that climbed at one point to 104. It’s been three weeks and I’m still not fully recovered. I’m much weaker than usual, need to sleep a lot, still have lingering bronchitis and am suffering from blurred vision.”
Z went to a cornea specialist on April 4, who said he was the third recovering measles patient he saw that week. He believes Z’s eyes will eventually fully recover.
Dr. Russell Faust, medical director from the Oakland County Health Division (OCHD), said measles can have long-term effects on a patient’s eyes. “The measles virus can affect nearly every part of the eye, leading to possible permanent changes in vision, including blindness.”
According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology, measles can harm the eyes and affect vision the following ways: conjunctivitis [a hallmark symptom of measles, often appearing before the rash and usually abating as the virus runs its course]; keratitis [infection of the cornea that can cause temporary blurred vision]; corneal scarring [ulcers]; retinopathy [a rare side effect where the measles virus destroys the retina, causing temporary and sometimes permanent vision loss]; optic neuritis [optic nerve inflammation, sometimes accompanied with encephalitis/brain swelling] or blindness.
According to Faust, measles is a leading cause of childhood blindness in developing countries where immunization programs for the disease are less established. “There is no specific anti-viral treatment for measles, making vaccination the best means of prevention,” he said.
Some Hearing Loss
Avi Cohen, 23, of Oak Park also is still recovering from the measles three weeks after first contracting the virus despite being immunized.
He said symptoms started off slowly, reaching a peak when the rash arrived and tapered off just as slowly. “It was the most pain I’ve ever been in in my life,” he said. Avi said he still feels weak, has been unable to shake his cough, which keeps him up at night, and can’t hear so well out of his left ear. If it doesn’t go away soon, he will go to the doctor. And he has lost 15 pounds.
Soon after the rash arrived, Avi suffered from a terrible headache, which alarmed doctors as brain swelling is a rare known side effect of the virus. However, brain swelling is also accompanied by slurring, nonsensical statements, confusion and memory loss, which he didn’t experience and eventually the headache went away on its own, so there was no need for a brain scan.
Leigh-Anne Stafford, health officer for OCHD, said, “Measles is a virus, similar to influenza and the common cold. It typically begins with a mild to moderate fever, often accompanied by a persistent cough, runny nose (coryza), inflamed eyes (conjunctivitis) and sore throat. Common complications of measles include ear infections, diarrhea and pneumonia. A more severe complication of measles is swelling of the brain (encephalitis). Measles may cause pregnant woman to give birth prematurely or to have a low-birth-weight baby.”
She added measles can cause serious side effects for some people. Those who are high risk for severe illness or complications include infants and children 5 years old and younger, adults over age 20, pregnant women and people with compromised immune systems. However, she said, “There is no way to tell in advance the severity of the symptoms someone will experience.”
According to Stafford, about 1 in 4 people in the U.S. who get measles will be hospitalized; 1 out of every 1,000 people with measles will develop brain swelling, which could lead to permanent brain damage, and 1 or 2 out of 1,000 people with measles will die, despite the best medical care. Complications can cause recovery to take longer than the expected two to three weeks.
Stafford said the OCHD follows guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. Specifically, for measles, here is the guidance: The majority of people born before 1957 are likely to have already been infected with measles and are presumed to be protected. From 1963-1988, the number of reported measles cases declined significantly due to the widespread use of the single-dose measles vaccine, which was the CDC recommendation for that time period.
Because of a large measles outbreak from 1989/90, the CDC updated the recommendations that all children should receive a second dose of MMR vaccine. Many adults who were born prior to the 1989 recommendation only received one dose of vaccine and should get a second dose to be fully protected. Many adults do not have a record of immunizations administered in childhood. It cannot be assumed that vaccines were administered if it has not been documented.
The current recommendation for children continues to be:
All healthy children should be vaccinated at 12-15 months with the combination shot for measles, mumps, rubella (MMR).
A second MMR vaccine is usually given at 4-6 years but can be given earlier if it is at least four weeks after the first dose.
A full list of signs, symptoms and complications from measles can be found on the Oakland County Health Divisions Measles Fact sheet at OakGov.com/Health.