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4th September 2015

How are measles diagnosed?

Measles are often thought to be a plague of the past, an ancient evil which only haunts some remote areas of the earth, caused by a virus so rare, vaccinations are superfluous.

A trip to the past

In  ancient history, measles caused wars to be won and lost, populations to be depleted and drove cultures to extinction. Roman Emperor Lucius Verus, conqueror of the Parthian Empire of Iran, notably died of this disease, as did many of the Incas, infected by the Spanish invaders. But it wasn’t until almost 400 years after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire that measles were recognised and classified by the Islamic physician, Rhazes.

Today, measles are well known and vaccines have enabled the disease to be contained, but it’s not quite as rare as one might think. The WHO estimates that over 145,700 measles deaths still occur every year, and the condition mainly affects children.

The typical symptoms of measles, including soaring temperatures, dry, smoker-like coughs and extreme discomfort can often appear as a severe influenza in the first few days – delaying the time of diagnosis. In fact, the distinguishing mark of measles, a widespread red rash across the face and neck known as Koplik’s spots, only appears around day 5 to classify the illness.

Nonetheless, the close-to-disappearance status of this disease still means that few western doctors are capable of identifying it. The safest and most reliable method is still, as is often the case, a good-old blood test with needle and all.

US measles outbreak

Yes measles outbreaks can still happen. In fact one in February this year in the US that reportedly got started at Disneyland in Southern California. Will this one be the last? That’s doubtful if you believe this Wikipedia article, which catalogs measles outbreaks in the 21st century. From Auckland to London to Vancouver, they happen all over the world and the cycle seems likely to continue.