Page last updated at 09:43 GMT, Friday, 23 May 2008 10:43 UK

Measles - a blast from the past

By Jim Todd
BBC News

Bit of a daft word, measles.

It sounds like something out of a nursery rhyme, slightly ridiculous; surely not a virus that could land me in hospital, wired up to a saline drip, oxygen mask clamped to my face?

Sadly, yes. Measles is no joke, nor is it as uncommon as it used to be, thanks to the MMR/autism scare (debunked but still having an impact).

Measles virus. NIBSC/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY
Measles is caused by a virus spread by droplets
I'll never know how I contracted it. Possibly I came too close on the Tube to a traveller from one of the current European outbreaks, in Poland and southern Germany. According to a note sent to my workplace by the Communicable Disease Control unit, I should not have got it in the first place.

"If you were born before 1970, you are likely to be already immune to measles," the advice said.

There was no vaccine in Hong Kong in the 1960s, where I grew up, but outbreaks regularly swept the community, and my mother even sent me to spend the day with some friends who had caught it, to spare me getting a childhood disease in adulthood.

How I wish her tactic had worked.

Slow start

My illness started about a month ago with a slight feeling of nausea, and a mild, intermittent fever.

Over a weekend I developed a deep, convulsive, painful cough, and a burning sore throat.

MEASLES
A highly infectious viral illness
Causes a range of symptoms including fever, coughing, and distinctive red-brown spots
Complications can include pneumonia, ear and eye infections, and croup (an infection of the lungs and throat)
More serious complications, such as inflammation of the brain (encephalitis), are rarer but can be fatal

My fever rose, and I was too unwell to go to work when Monday dawned.

My GP diagnosed a chest infection and gave me antibiotics. Even with four-hourly paracetamol, I struggled to keep my temperature under 39C, and as for eating, forget it.

The next day I came out in a rash and went back to the doctor. He and a colleague toyed with a measles diagnosis, but decided it was probably an allergic reaction to the antibiotic, after establishing that I had had an adverse reaction to it before.

But I got no better even with a different antibiotic, and taking anti-histamine tablets. A day later, still with a high fever and no longer able to keep fluid down, my doctor told me to go to A&E.

Hospital care

There was continuing confusion over my diagnosis, though the specialists at the infectious diseases department were pretty sure it was measles. I had all the expected symptoms, which also included sore mouth, painful eyes, aching muscles and diarrhoea.

Jim Todd
I felt as bad as I looked
Then Phil Rice, a consultant virologist at St George's hospital in South London, asked me the key question: "How do you really feel?"

"Absolutely dreadful, the sickest I've ever felt," I croaked. "That's the final arbiter," he said. The saliva test proved positive for the virus the next day.

I spent two days in hospital, in an isolation room. Once they'd got my fluid levels back to normal, I was safe to go home.

The doctors made no secret of the fact that in hospital I was at risk of getting further infections, as measles suppresses one's immune system, and was a potential danger to other patients and staff - one of the nurses was clearly nervous about coming into my room to do the regular observations.

Slow recovery

So it was back to home and nursing by my long-suffering wife. Recovery has been surprisingly slow, though I avoided the really nasty complications, such as pneumonia and encephalitis.

In a weakened state, I picked up an eye infection, and had another allergic reaction to who knows what.

Four weeks on from the onset, I'm back at work, but suffer from fatigue and a racing pulse.

Measles is astonishingly infectious. Two unvaccinated friends of my young sons picked it up from me before I was diagnosed. They had only very briefly been in my house, and never came within four metres of me.

We're hoping the trail of infection has stopped with them.

Rising threat

A number of local parents have taken note and had their children vaccinated. But doctors in south London, where I live, fear bigger outbreaks among unvaccinated children.

Inoculation rates here are less than 70%, considerably less than the national average. Health officials cast envious eyes across the North Sea, where Scandinavian countries have seen off the virus for some 10 years.

There were 769 confirmed cases in England and Wales in the first 10 months of 2007 and school outbreaks this year in Cornwall and South-East London reveal continuing problems with the take-up of the vaccination.

"I suspect they will need to do a new nationwide campaign to head off epidemics of both measles and rubella," said Dr Rice.


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