MORE than a quarter of a century after she first had measles – one of the most infectious diseases in the world – Stephanie Peters died from it.
She was 27, and the disease had already robbed her of her ability to see, walk, talk and feed herself.
Today, her mum Gail is urging parents to look at photos of her daughter, to read her story, and to vaccinate their children to spare themselves or another family the agony hers has gone through.
Gail’s plea comes as uptake of the measles, mumps and rubella jab is lower than it has been for more than a decade, with the last large outbreak in 2012.
The West Midlands is facing the biggest outbreak since the 1990s.
Gail, now 62, tells Sun Health she fears people are not taking the disease seriously enough.
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She says: “This is not just a harmless childhood illness.
“Measles killed my daughter.
“If we could have stopped her getting measles, it would have saved her life.
“Getting your child vaccinated could save their life, and the more children vaccinated, the less likely this cruel disease will spread.”
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When Stephanie first caught measles in 1985, aged nine months, she was too young to receive the first MMR dose, given at age one.
It was a fairly mild case. “She had a rash, a runny nose and was off her food,” says Gail, from Stoke-on-Trent.
“She was never in hospital or anything.
“She had it for about a week to ten days and that was it.”
Gail says her daughter initially recovered from measles well and grew up to be a “popular” and “chatty” child at school who loved to dance.
But in 1995, ten years later, Stephanie’s future would be ripped from her when she fell victim to gradually-progressing brain disease subacute sclerosing panencephalitis, a rare complication of measles.
Over the following 17 years, Gail and her husband David, 64, saw their daughter slowly lose her mobility and fall into a vegetative state.
Stephanie died in 2013, from pneumonia caused by SSPE.
In the UK, one in every 25,000 unvaccinated children who catch measles will develop SSPE, which almost always results in death.
It happens when the measles virus infects the brain, where it can lie dormant for more than a decade.
SSPE causes memory loss, mood changes, muscle spasms and blindness.
Most people with this disease die between one and three years after diagnosis, when the brain stops being able to control vital organs.
There is no cure for SSPE, but it can be prevented with the MMR jab.
The first signs are typically changes in behaviour, including failing school work or irritability.
Gail initially noticed her child became “subdued” at ten years old, and she says: “Her zest for life wasn’t the same as before.”
Then her vision blurred and she became confused by simple tasks.
Gail says: “She stopped being able to put on her socks, yet she could still tie up her shoelaces.
“She knew how to clean her teeth, but could not work out how to put toothpaste on the brush. Her writing also got very big, so we thought she needed glasses and got her eyes tested.”
Stephanie’s symptoms persisted and she was referred to Hinchingbrooke Hospital in Cambridgeshire, where she rapidly deteriorated over six weeks.
She started fitting and lost the ability to walk
Gail recalls: “She started fitting and lost the ability to walk.”
Finally, the family was given the horrifying news that Stephanie was suffering from SSPE. The consultant said she would die “within six weeks”.
The heartbroken family, which included Stephanie’s older brothers, Gareth and Matthew, now aged 42 and 40, decided to take her home before she died.
Over time, SSPE took her ability to hold her head up, see, talk and eat.
Incredibly, she defied the odds and lived until she was 27 — but spent 17 years confined to a wheelchair being fed by tube.
Before Stephanie died, her family gave 24-hour care at home.
But Gail says it meant they did not have time to fully process the devastating diagnosis.
She says: “We were so busy, it was almost as if it wasn’t true.
Parents need to know how contagious it is
“You couldn’t sit and cry because it was so intense — you were no good to anyone if you were crying.”
Warning others to take the disease seriously, Gail says: “People need to see photos of Stephanie to fully understand all the risks of not getting vaccinated.”
It’s a plea echoed by Davina Barrett, after her baby boy Ezra had to stay in hospital with pneumonia after a bout of measles.
“I didn’t know anything about measles,” she tells Sun Health.
“We’d vaguely heard something about it on the news, but other than that we were clueless.”
Ezra was only three months old, again too young for the MMR jab, when he fell ill last month.
Davina, 28, says his experience is an example of why all parents should check that their kids are protected.
“Parents need to know how contagious it is and the consequences that can arise,” she warns.
Spread by coughs and sneezes, measles is a highly contagious disease caused by a virus.
It infects the respiratory tract, causing cold-like symptoms before spreading through the body.
Professor Helen Bedford, an expert in child public health at University College London, tells Sun Health: “Even an uncomplicated attack of measles can make people feel very ill.
“About two weeks after being infected, people may experience a fever, watery eyes and a cough.
“After this, a blotchy red rash appears, usually behind the ears and on the forehead and travels down the body.”
And it can lead to severe conditions such as SSPE.
“Life-threatening complications such as pneumonia, meningitis, blindness and seizures are possible,” Prof Helen adds.
The recent surge in cases, mostly affecting children under ten, prompted the UK Health Security Agency to declare a “national incident” last month.
Last year saw 1,603 suspected cases of measles recorded in England and Wales — up from 735 cases in 2022 and 360 in 2021.
Since October, 347 people have caught measles in England, with 75 per cent of cases in the West Midlands.
December saw infections jump by 249 per cent, and so far this year 127 cases have been reported.
Two weeks ago, NHS England launched a campaign urging parents to ensure their children are up to date with their MMR jabs.
It comes as uptake is at its lowest level in 12 years.
In September, only 85 per cent of children starting primary school had been given both doses of the vaccine.
The WHO states that for herd immunity to be achieved, you need 95 per cent uptake of the jab.
In 2017, the UK was declared measles-free after hitting that target, and seeing no measles transmission for 12 months.
‘Didn’t have a choice’
But the status was lost just a year later after a spate of cases across Europe.
For both Gail and Davina, there was nothing to suggest their children would fall so ill when they first caught measles.
“There was nothing to say he was seriously ill — he was just groaning a little bit,” says Davina.
But suddenly a terrifying red rash spread across the three-month-old’s body within a couple of hours, and they immediately began to panic.
The couple, from Walsall, West Midlands, rushed their son to hospital, thinking he must have had an allergic reaction.
But they were told he likely had measles — which is currently running rife in the region.
Distressingly, Ezra just “kept getting worse and worse” to the point where he struggled to breathe.
Risk of going blind
Davina, a mental health nurse, says: “He was very sick. We were so worried about him and so scared about the complications he might face.”
Doctors warned that the tot might need to be put on a ventilator and taken into intensive care.
Thankfully, neither was necessary, but he did develop pneumonia — inflammation of the lungs caused by an infection.
He was also at risk of going blind.
The main symptoms of measles
MEASLES is highly contagious and can cause serious problems in some people.
The infection usually starts with cold-like symptoms, followed by a rash a few days later. Some people may also get small spots in their mouth.
The first signs include:
- A high temperature
- A runny or blocked nose
- A cough
- Red, sore, watery eyes
Small white spots may then appear inside the cheeks and on the back of the lips a few days later.
A rash tends to come next. This usually starts on the face and behind the ears before spreading to the rest of the body.
The spots are sometimes raised and join together to form blotchy patches. They are not normally itchy.
The rash looks brown or red or white skin. It may be harder to see on darker skin.
Complications are rare, but measles can lead to pneumonia, meningitis, blindness, seizures, and sometimes death.
Ezra spent six days at the Good Hope Hospital in Sutton Coldfield in Birmingham, during which time Davina worried her son would never get better.
He has since fully recovered, but now Davina and Karl are begging parents to take measles seriously and get their children vaccinated against it.
The first dose is given at one year, and the second at three years and four months.
Davina, also mum to one-year-old Noah, who is jabbed, says: “Ezra didn’t have a choice as he was too young, but so many others are not, so please get your children vaccinated.
“It’s a really big risk not to get it, but these things can happen — look what Ezra went through.”
Expert answers MMR questions
TO help deal with parental concerns, Professor Helen Bedford, a specialist in child public health at University College London, tells you all you need to know about the MMR vaccine.
When is the vaccine given?
THE MMR vaccine is part of the NHS Routine Childhood Immunisation Programme.
It’s typically given via a single shot into the muscle of the thigh or the upper arm.
The first dose is offered to children at the age of one (babies younger than this may have some protection from antibodies passed on from their mother, which start to wear off at about 12 months.)
The second dose is then offered to children aged three years and four months before they start school.
To check to see if you or your child have had the recommended two doses of MMR, you can look at their/your Personal Child Health Record, also known as the red book.
If you can’t find the red book, call your GP and ask them for your vaccine records.
You are never too old to catch up with your MMR vaccine.
If you see from your vaccination records that you did not receive two doses as a child, you can book a vaccination appointment.
Is the vaccine safe?
THE MMR vaccine is safe and effective at preventing measles, mumps and rubella.
In the UK, we started using the jab in 1988, so we have decades of experience using it.
The jab is made from much-weakened live versions of the three viruses.
This triggers the immune system to produce antibodies that are protective in the face of future exposure.
It takes up to three weeks after having the vaccine to be fully protected.
Like any vaccine, the MMR jab can cause side-effects, which are usually mild and go away very quickly.
This includes rash, high temperature, loss of appetite and a general feeling of being unwell for about two or three days.
There is also a very small chance children can have a severe allergic reaction.
But compared to the complications of measles, there is no contest that vaccination is by far the safest and most effective route to take.
Why was it linked with autism?
IN 1998, Andrew Wakefield and his colleagues published a now-discredited paper in medical journal The Lancet.
It led to a sharp decline in vaccination rates.
Even at the time, the research was considered poor.
The Lancet retracted the story in 2010 after Wakefield’s article was found “dishonest” by the General Medical Council.
He was later struck off and subsequently, in 2011, the British Medical Journal declared the story fraudulent.
Does it contain ingredients from pigs?
THERE are two types of MMR jabs: One with gelatin (animal/pig collagen), and one without it.
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For some religious groups, the inclusion of pig products is not acceptable.
Those people should ask for the vaccine without gelatin.