Subacute sclerosing panencephalitis, or SSPE, is a rare neurological condition caused by an abnormal immune response to the measles. As a result, brain inflammation occurs. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) states that less than ten SSPE cases are documented each year in the United States, due to the prevalence of the measles vaccination. The symptoms of SSPE do not begin until years after infection; the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) states that they can begin after six to eight years. SSPE is found mainly in children and adolescents, though men are affected more than women, with a ratio of three to one, according to the NINDS. The Merck Online Medical Library adds that six to twenty-two per million people develop SSPE from wild measles, while one per million people develop SSPE with the measles vaccination; however, it is speculated that the latter cause is actually due to unrecognized measles before the vaccination.
Symptoms and Physical Examination
The NIH states that the symptoms of SSPE range from behavioral and cognitive deficits to muscular problems. The patient may develop dementia, have a gradual change in behavior, or bizarre behavior. Muscular problems include myoclonic jerking (a type of spasm), unsteady gait, very tense muscles, lack of tone in muscles, and weakness in both legs. Since the majority of patients are school age, academic problems can also occur. Some patients may also have seizures or go into a coma.
The NIH notes that when a physical examination is done on the patient, damage is evident on the optic nerve (responsible for sight) and the retina (responsible for light). Muscle twitching can also be noted, and the patient does not perform well on motor coordination tests.
Treatment and Longevity
No cure for SSPE exists; the NIH states that the majority of patients die within one to two years after diagnosis. However, according to the NINDS, about five percent of patients recover and regain lost function, though this process takes a long time. Few treatment options are available that work for SSPE; the Merck Online Medical Library states that antiepileptics (anticonvulsants) and other supportive measures are the only accepted treatments. SSPE can be prevented by getting the measles vaccination (the MMR vaccination -- measles, mumps and rubella vaccination); the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends starting the vaccination between twelve and fifteen months old.
Elizabeth Stannard Gromisch received her bachelor’s of science degree in neuroscience from Trinity College in Hartford, CT in May 2009. She is the Hartford Women's Health Examiner and she writes about abuse on Suite 101.