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Subacute Sclerosing Panencephalitis

  • Cynthia M. Johnson, MA
Publication Type:


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 get worse over time.

Central Nervous System.

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SSPE is caused by an altered form of the measles virus. A person can have this 7 to 10 years after they had 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.


A person may have:

  • Changes in behavior or outbursts
  • Problems with learning, memory loss, or lack of focus
  • Fatigue
  • Jerking muscles
  • Problems with seeing things that are not there
  • Problems speaking
  • Problems swallowing
  • Blindness
  • Seizures


The doctor will ask about symptoms and health history, including if a person had measles. A physical exam will be done.

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:


The goal of treatment is to keep a person comfortable as SSPE gets worse. There is no cure. Most people with SSPE do not survive longer than 3 years after being diagnosed. The doctor may advise:
  • Medicines to help control seizures
  • Antiviral medicines to try to slow the disease
  • Nutrition and breathing support as needed as SSPE gets worse
The doctor may also advise palliative care. This type of care focuses on keeping people with serious health problems comfortable. Palliative care treats things like pain, depression, nausea, fatigue and any other problems that might happen as SSPE gets worse.


The best way to prevent SSPE is to get a measles vaccination.





  • Chiu, M.H., Meatherall, B., et al. Subacute sclerosing panencephalitis in pregnancy. Lancet Infectious Diseases, 2016; 16 (3): 366-375.
  • Complications of measles. Center for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/measles/hcp/index.html.
  • Measles. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/condition/measles.
  • Rota, P.A., Moss, W.J., et al. Measles. Nat Rev Dis Primers. 2016; 2: 16049.
  • Subacute sclerosing panencephalitis. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke website. Available at: https://www.ninds.nih.gov/health-information/disorders/subacute-sclerosing-panencephalitis.
  • Subacute sclerosing panencephalitis (SSPE). Merck Manual Professional Version website. Available at: https://www.merckmanuals.com/professional/pediatrics/miscellaneous-viral-infections-in-infants-and-children/subacute-sclerosing-panencephalitis-sspe.


  • Rimas Lukas, MD
Last Updated:

This content is reviewed regularly and is updated when new and relevant evidence is made available. This information is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with questions regarding a medical condition.