With the recent measles outbreak in the Greater Vancouver area, measles awareness has increased dramatically in the past couple of months. With Spring Break coming up, and more families travelling to foreign countries that have lower levels of measles immunization, so we wanted to spotlight the connection between eyesight and measles, especially for children.
Vaccination levels have dropped in recent years, and with more people travelling around the world, we may continue to see an increase in measles in Canada. As of March 6th, there are 17 confirmed cases of measles in the Metro Vancouver area. A Vancouver local who recently travelled to the Philippines, which was currently experiencing a measles outbreak, was infected and brought the measles virus back into Vancouver, BC last month.
WHAT IS MEASLES?
Measles is a highly contagious disease caused by an airborne virus that is spread by droplets in the air. Measles spreads easily because the virus can survive in the air up to 2 hours after the infected person has left the area. When exposed, 90% of people will become infected with measles if they aren’t protected. Since the measles rash takes 4 days to appear, it can spread before the infected person is even aware of having it.
People most likely to get measles after being exposed to the virus are:
- adults who have not been fully vaccinated because they’ve only had one shot,
- children under 5 who only 1 measles shot or infants who can’t be vaccinated yet,
- young adults who have not been vaccinated due to personal beliefs,
- people who cannot be vaccinated due to underlying health issues, and
- people with weakened immune systems.
SYMPTOMS OF MEASLES
Initial symptoms of measles can include a runny nose, fever, cough, white spots inside the mouth, and sore eyes. The signature measles skin rash then appears after a few days, first on the face then down the body and limbs. The measles vaccine is the primary way this illness is controlled and prevented but in some parts of the developed world, the measles vaccine is not readily available or easily accessible. If you’re planning to travel to a part of the world with lower measles immunization rates, make sure your vaccines are up to date.
COMPLICATIONS OF MEASLES
Some serious complications of measles can include:
- diarrhea and vomiting,
- infections of the respiratory system, such as the airways and lungs,
- seizures due to fever,
- ear infections,
- inflammation of the vocal cords which can cause laryngitis, and
- red eyes.
EYE COMPLICATIONS OF MEASLES
Advanced complications of measles can affect the eyes. The brain and membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord can get infected by the virus. Since the eyes are directly connected to the brain, there’s a high chance they can be exposed to the virus as well. Approximately 1 out of 3 patients who contract measles have serious complications, including brain inflammation and eye problems. People who are most at risk of these advanced complications include babies under 1-year-old, immunocompromised adults and children, and pregnant women (who can contract the disease and also pass on its effects to their baby).
Children are more likely to develop measles-related vision issues especially if they have measles early on in their life or if their mothers contract measles during pregnancy. Children in the developing world are more likely to have eye complications because they are usually Vitamin A deficient.
In rare cases, measles can trigger vision problems and even blindness. Most measles patients, regardless of age, are likely to get red eyes or conjunctivitis. In some cases, having red eyes can cause inflammation of the cornea (the clear lens of the eye). This inflammation, also called measles keratitis, can break down the cornea, leading to scarring, and makes the cornea hazy and discoloured in appearance. If the scarring is severe enough, it can lead to blindness.
The measles virus can also affect the retina, which is the light-sensing portion of the eye. In rare cases, the retina can swell or become scarred, which may cause vision loss. It can also affect the eye’s blood vessels and the optic nerve, all of which contribute to a person’s eyesight.
PROTECTING YOURSELF FROM MEASLES
The best way to avoid getting measles is to ensure your vaccinations are up to date, especially if you are planning to travel abroad. If you are in a higher risk group, you may want to limit your exposure to busy public areas. For those people that are unable to be vaccinated because they are immunocompromised or are too young, like infants, they should avoid busy public areas or stay isolated.
Vaccinations are free (covered by the government) for Canadians and are available through the health authorities, your local doctor’s office, and pharmacies.
If you think you’ve been exposed to measles, please isolate yourself and contact your doctor immediately. For more details about the recent exposure locations in the Lower Mainland, as well as the timelines for exposure, please check out this Vancouver Sun article.
If you are concerned about your child’s eye health, we encourage you to contact your family doctor or optometrist, who can refer you to a pediatric ophthalmologist.
If you’re an adult who’s concerned about your eye health or are experiencing red eyes, we encourage you to contact your doctor, eye care professional, or contact our Surrey, Coquitlam, or Abbotsford clinics to schedule an appointment.