Subacute Sclerosing Panencephalitis

(SSPE; Dawson Disease)


Subacute sclerosing panencephalitis (SSPE) is a rare and deadly brain disorder. It causes problems with thinking, uncontrolled movements, and seizures that worsen over time.

Central Nervous System

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SSPE is caused by an altered form of the measles virus. It occurs 7 to 10 years after a person has the measles.

Risk Factors

The risk is higher in people who get measles before they are 2 years of age. SSPE usually starts in children or young adults. It is also more common in males and people who were not vaccinated against measles.


Problems worsen over time. A person may have:

  • Changes in behavior
  • Problems learning
  • Outbursts
  • Memory loss
  • Lack of focus
  • Being very tired
  • Jerking muscles
  • Seeing things that are not there
  • Problems speaking
  • Problems swallowing
  • Blindness
  • Seizures


The doctor will ask about your symptoms and health history, including whether you have had measles. A physical exam will be done. This may be enough to suspect SSPE.

Blood tests may be done. A lumbar puncture may also be done to test the fluid around the brain and spine.

An electrocardiogram (EKG) may be done to look at how the heart is working.

Images of the brain will be taken. This can be done with:


There is no cure. Supportive care will be needed as the disease worsens. Medicine may also be given to help control seizures.


The best way to prevent SSPE is to get vaccinated to prevent getting measles.


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke


Canadian Neurological Sciences Federation
Public Health Agency of Canada


Chiu MH, Meatherall B, Nikolic A, et al. Lancet Infect Dis. 2016 Jan [Epub ahead of print].
Complications of measles. Center for Disease Control (CDC) website. Available at:
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Updated June 13, 2019. Accessed April 14, 2020.
Measles. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: . Updated March 5, 2020. Accessed April 14, 2020.
Rota PA, Moss WJ, Takeda M, et al. Measles. Nat Rev Dis Primers. 2016;2:16049.
Subacute sclerosing panencephalitis information page. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke website. Available at: March 27, 2019. Accessed April 14, 2020.
Subacute sclerosing panencephalitis (SSPE). Merck Manual Professional Version website. Available at: Updated August 2019. Accessed April 14, 2020.
Last reviewed February 2020 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Rimas Lukas, MD
Last Updated: 4/14/2020

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