Nineteen-year-old Felicity Lyme says having measles was like having food poisoning and every other illness she had experienced rolled into one.
Measles just feels like having a really bad flu – you get achey, you get a sore head, you just feel like it is just like flu. You know, it’s just bad, you just feel like it’s a winter flu.
And then, when measles develops, you get terribly sick, you get awful, awful temperatures, and everything hurts and you can’t breathe. You get spots, you get rashes. I hallucinated, I was delirious … it is actually just like flu on crack. It’s just awful. It’s the most awful thing you can imagine. Especially when you don’t think that measles is bad.
And it develops, and you can’t do anything for yourself. You lose the ability to be a 19-year-old who does things for herself, who can go to the bathroom by herself, and drink water and do all that. Measles takes away all those aspects of everyday life that you think that you’d have. You don’t know who you are … it’s just this completely awful disease that people don’t think about.
‘It was like flu on crack. I felt terrible. If I wanted things I couldn’t move and had to get help; I was having hallucinations and every bone in my body hurt,’ she says.
Felicity caught measles from her Auckland-based brother Jacob when he visited his family in Wellington during one of the Auckland measles outbreaks in 2011.
No-one initially suspected that Jacob, and later Felicity, had measles as both of them had been vaccinated as babies during the Queensland measles outbreak in the early 1990s.
Up to 95 percent of people are protected against measles once fully immunised but because it is not 100 percent, there are some rare cases when immunised people can get the disease.
Between them Felicity and her brother unwittingly exposed others to measles on four planes, at university, at a university hall of residence and at their workplaces.
‘At my work they sent everyone home who couldn’t prove they were immunised and all of the students in my lectures had to be told that I had measles,’ Felicity says.
‘Some people at work complained about having to go home but perhaps they should have been immunised. Mine failed but that’s not normal. It’s not enforced here but I think everyone should be immunised,’ Felicity says.
While Jacob was sick enough to spend a night in Auckland Hospital, measles hit Felicity even harder. She says she first felt ‘fluish’ when she was driving Jacob to the airport but decided to go ahead with a planned trip to see friends at Otago University.
Over the next few days she became increasingly unwell until, after returning home to Wellington, she woke one morning covered in a rash.
‘I had been checking on her through the night and she was extremely ill with a high fever,’ her mother Camilla Bourne says. ‘I put her in the car and rushed her into hospital thinking it was either measles or meningitis.’
Felicity says she was having difficulty breathing, her neck was aching, she had koplik spots in her mouth (the telltale sign of measles) and she was having so much difficulty swallowing she couldn’t drink anything.
‘I was hallucinating a lot and didn’t know where I was. They were terrifying hallucinations about dying or being crushed. I felt like something was constantly on my chest,’ she says.
At one point Camilla called Felicity’s grandfather, who is a doctor, to tell him that Felicity might need to be intubated or artificially assisted to breathe and he warned her that Felicity might not recover. ‘It was really frightening. I hadn’t realised that measles could be life threatening,’ Camilla says.
Even after she improved a little, Felicity had difficulty seeing, which meant she couldn’t read or watch TV. ‘I had thought after a few days I’d be better but unlike the flu or a cold, I didn’t know when I would be ok. I couldn’t even get up to go to the bathroom by myself. I was utterly dependent, completely useless.’
After three days in hospital Felicity’s temperature, which had been around 41˚C, stabilised and she convinced hospital staff to let her go home.
‘The nurses at Wellington Hospital were great, absolutely wonderful. I don’t think there is a hospital in the world that could have done better,’ she says.
At the time of writing it had been three months since Felicity had measles but her lowered immunity meant she had developed a tooth infection soon after leaving hospital and she had been sick with a number of viruses. She had managed to keep up with her studies but said she still didn’t feel like her usual self. ‘Measles really is the most horrible thing,’ she says.
This case study was originally published in Immunisation: Making a choice for your children.