Measles killing mass in Vietnam by hitting lungs, not brain

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Families with their children suffering from measles at a hospital in Hanoi April 17. PHOTO: AFP
Measles deaths in Vietnam rose to 127 on Tuesday, as doctors announced unusual developments in the virus' effects on children respiratory systems.
The virus appears to be attacking patients' ability to breath, rather than the brain as it did in previous years, leading to fatality rates higher than usual, doctors said during a conference held by the Health Ministry.
Doctors at the event said that many patients died of pneumonia or other related complications within their first few days of infection, according to Thoi bao Kinh te Saigon Online.
Almost all of the fatal cases so far have been children in Hanoi and other nearby localities including three from the north-central province of Nghe An.
So far, no fatalities have been reported in the south.
The Health Ministry has not announced a pandemic despite thousands of infections nationwide, noting that it has seen no reports of a mutation in the virus.
But doctors at Hanoi’s Bach Mai Hospital, where eight out of 160 measles patients have died, said many of this year's fatal cases unfolded abnormally fast.
Dr Nguyen Tien Dung, head of the hospital's pediatrics department, said three children had gone into severe respiratory decline a day after they became infected.
One has already died.
Subsequent tests found no contributing factors other than measles, driving doctors to conclude that the virus had struck their lungs.
Some patients appeared playful when they entered the hospital, only to require respirators several hours later.
Some of those cases recovered the capacity to breathe independently only to return to the machines and, finally, cease breathing. Dung cited these cases to illustrate how the virus could devastate one’s immune system.
He said that when the infection persists and treatment proves ineffective, either the child’s physical condition or the virus must be to blame.
But tests found that many of the hardest hit cases didn’t suffer from anything beyond measles, despite lengthy treatment ordeals, and in some cases, death.
Dr Truong Huu Khanh of Children’s Hospital No.1 (Ho Chi Minh City’s leading pediatrics facility) said parents should be careful not to give their children corticoid, which is present in many common medicines because it can weaken ones’ immune system.
Corticoids pose particular danger to children infected with measles, he said.
Khanh said he's noticed that several private clinics have given children corticoid to ease their coughing during the early days of the virus.
Dr Nguyen Van Vinh Chau, director of Ho Chi Minh City Tropical Diseases Hosptial, said during the conference that the recent death of a 3-year-old boy who was fully vaccinated has stirred confusion.
Vietnam provides free measles vaccination to children; the vaccination process involves one shot at ninth months and another at 18 months.
But Phan Trong Lan, head of the city's Pasteur Institute, said the vaccination does not guarantee total protection.
A small number of vaccinated individuals remain susceptible to infection, he said. The worldwide susceptibility rate in the case of the measles vaccination is 3-3.5 percent. In Vietnam, Lan said, the rate is 1.7 percent.
Doctors at the conference said subacute meningitis is another complication of the measles virus that can come later, sometimes more than ten years after one is infected. There's no treatment for the virus which can persist inside the body and attack the brain.
The Central Pediatrics Hospital, where at least 109 children infected with measles have died, has reduced its overload from 30-50 hospitalizations a day tenfold, after the ministry asked it to coordinate with other hospitals in Hanoi.
But the number of infections have been rising in nearby localities like Nghe An, Thanh Hoa, Ha Nam and Hai Phong -- the latter having already reported one death.

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