3 Oct 2019

Measles outbreak: Father's kiss of near death

From Checkpoint, 5:20 pm on 3 October 2019

An Auckland father is facing a long, slow recovery after contracting measles and then encephalitis from a person he came into contact with for less than two minutes.

A poster at a medical centre warns against the spread of measles.

A poster at a medical centre warns against the spread of measles. Photo: RNZ / Rob Dixon

Forty-five-year-old Nick Penny thought he was vaccinated against the highly contagious disease, but caught measles last month and quickly developed potentially fatal swelling of the brain.

He's now recovering at home but his wife Nicci Gillies told Checkpoint his diagnosis should act as a warning for others to check their immunity.

She said her husband was currently in a subdued state and that any interaction was physically draining and left him disturbed.

Her husband had been exposed to an individual for less than a few minutes, with that person next morning showing signs of measles before being officially diagnosed.

Nine days after that, her husband developed symptoms.

"He kissed the person on the cheek and he left very quickly. That was the level of his exposure," she said.

The onset of illness had been quick in her husband's case, Mrs Gillies said.

"We had friends over for lunch on the Sunday and at the end of the lunch, he just said 'I need to go to bed, I'm not well'.

Even so, she said he had managed to worked three days from home on restricted hours, before finally being taken to a hospital ward.

"He signed off from his work computer on the Wednesday and that was the last his work had heard from him. And then I was messaging his work to let them know he was at Auckland Hospital."

Mrs Gillies said his breathing had laboured and his temperature had hovered around 41C, so she rang for medical advice.

"He was quite disassociated from what was happening. I rang Healthline and they talked me through what was potentially happened and at that point we activated an ambulance to take him to the hospital."

Mr Penny's behaviour had been alarming to the family after that, she said.

"Nick's behaviour had become quiet and unusual from probably around Thursday. It was very difficult to connect with him and for him to allow me or our children any form of support for him and that was quite extraordinary for us. It was very difficult to get fluids into him."

The family, who were all immunised, had been put in quarantine at the hospital as a precaution. They were told the next day that it was apparent from the severity of Mr Penney's condition that he was not immunised, even though he had been under the impression he was.

Mrs Gillies said her husband was than discharged on the understanding he would drink three litres of water per day, take antibiotics for secondary infections, and take pain relief. However, she objected because of his worrying state.

"I just said 'he's not coming home with me because he was just not the person that I knew'. His mother came in and took him home. Then she was the one who rang the ambulance again that evening, because he had become quiet delirious.

"That's when I arrived at Auckland Hospital at 1am and Nick was having a CT scan and lumbar puncture and he was diagnosed with measles and encephalitis."

She said it was frightening to be told that at this point medical specialists couldn't do anything to treat her husband other than keep him hydrated and ensure his pain was under control and hope for the best.

Staff explained that her husband's condition was the reason authorities had been pushing hard for people to get immunised against measles.

Mrs Gillies said the family were still waiting to see to what extend Mr Penny's brain had been injured by  brain swelling.

'We are no longer dealing with measles, we're dealing with brain injury from the measles. There is encephalitis, brain-swelling that happens for different viral reasons in different people. This is a by-product of the measles and this just something the public aren't necessarily aware of."