Easy-to-read medicine information about the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine – what it is, when it is given and possible side effects.
MMR is a vaccine that protects you against 3 viral infections – measles, mumps and rubella. There are no single vaccines available for these infections. In New Zealand, the MMR vaccine is part of the childhood immunisation schedule for children at 12 months and 15 months of age.
What is the MMR vaccine?
The MMR vaccine protects you against 3 viral infections – measles, mumps and rubella. The vaccine is a live vaccine, which is made using the mumps, measles and rubella viruses that have been weakened (or attenuated). After vaccination, the weakened vaccine viruses replicate (grow) inside you. This means a very small dose of virus is given to activate your immune system.
Just one dose of MMR gives you a 95% chance of being protected against measles. The reason for a second dose is to make sure the 5% who need this second vaccine get immunity.
Live attenuated vaccines do not usually cause problems in people who are healthy. If it does cause symptoms of the disease, it is milder than if you had caught the disease.
There is no evidence that the MMR vaccine causes autism. Read more.
Why is vaccination against measles, mumps and rubella important?
Vaccination with the MMR vaccine is the best way to protect against measles, mumps and rubella. While these infections may be mild in some people, they can cause serious complications in others.
- Measles: The infection can be serious, with 1 in 10 needing to go to hospital. Complications include diarrhoea (which can lead to dehydration), ear infections (which can cause hearing loss), pneumonia (which is the most common cause of death) and encephalitis (brain inflammation), which can cause brain damage. Read more about measles.
- Mumps: The symptoms of mumps are usually mild, such as swollen salivary glands (at the side of your face), headache and fever, but it can cause serious complications such as deafness, swollen testicles or ovaries, and meningitis. Read more about mumps.
- Rubella (also called German measles): This is usually a mild infection that gets better within about 7–10 days, but it becomes a serious concern if a pregnant woman catches the infection during the first 20 weeks of pregnancy. This is because the rubella virus can affect the development of the baby and cause severe health problems such as eye problems, deafness, heart abnormalities and brain damage. Read more about rubella.
Measles, mumps and rubella are all easily spread from an infected person by coughing, sneezing or talking. They can be spread by face-to-face contact within a metre, or by touching an object infected from droplets, such as a used tissue or keyboard.
Measles can also be caught by breathing in the same air as an infected person, such as when walking past someone who has the disease.
All cases of measles seen in New Zealand are the result of non-immune people bringing the virus into the country from overseas. Very high coverage of the MMR vaccine is necessary to prevent the spread of these diseases, in particular, measles. If enough people are vaccinated, these diseases will not be spread. This is called herd immunity.
Who should get the MMR vaccine?
MMR vaccine is funded for all children from 12 months of age and for adults born on/after 1 January 1969, who have not completed a 2-dose course of the MMR vaccine. It is part of the childhood immunisation schedule for children at 12 months and 15 months of age.
It is recommended that the second MMR dose be given on time at 15 months of age unless there is a high risk of exposure to these diseases, such as during an outbreak. In that case, the second MMR dose can be given as early as 4 weeks after the first MMR dose.
All women of childbearing age need to know if they are protected from rubella. In pregnant women, rubella can cause serious complications to the unborn baby, especially during the first 20 weeks of pregnancy. Immunity from the mother can stop the baby becoming infected.
If you are planning a pregnancy, check with your midwife or doctor whether you need to be vaccinated against rubella. When you get vaccinated, avoid getting pregnant for at least 1 month afterwards.
MMR vaccine is a live vaccine and should not be given to pregnant women.
The Ministry of Health is advising people travelling overseas to make sure they are fully vaccinated against measles before they go. While cases in New Zealand are usually rare, because endemic measles has been eliminated here, the disease is regularly brought into the country through international travel and there was an outbreak in 2019.
Should older children who have missed one or both doses of the MMR vaccine still have the vaccine?
Yes. A total of 2 doses of the MMR vaccine are recommended for all children and adults born after 1968. When 2 doses of MMR are required, they can be given a minimum of 4 weeks apart. Just 1 dose of MMR gives you a 95% chance of being protected against measles. The reason for a second dose is to make sure the 5% who need this second vaccine get immunity.
- Children vaccinated overseas: Children who have received a measles only or measles/rubella vaccine overseas still need MMR vaccination. Two doses of the MMR vaccine given from 12 months of age are recommended irrespective of previous measles or measles/rubella only vaccination.
- Children who have had measles: These children still need to receive the MMR vaccine. Two doses of MMR vaccine are recommended to protect the child from mumps and rubella.
Who should NOT get the MMR vaccine?
- are pregnant
- have a severe weakness of the immune system
- have had a severe allergic response (anaphylaxis) to this vaccine or part of this vaccine before
- have had another live vaccine within the past 4 weeks.
Where can I get vaccinated?
Family medical clinics: You can go to your family medical clinic for vaccinations. They have your medical records and can check to see if you’ve already had a particular vaccination. Either your doctor or a nurse can give the vaccination.
Pharmacies: Many pharmacies are offering a free vaccination service for the MMR vaccine. Usually no appointment is necessary and some pharmacies have longer opening hours than family medical clinics. A pharmacist can check your vaccination record and give the vaccination.
After-hour medical clinics: If you don’t have a family doctor or are unable to get the vaccine from a pharmacy, you can go to one of the after-hour medical clinics. Phone them first to make sure they can help you with the vaccination you need.
Vaccines on the National Immunisation Schedule are free. Other vaccines are funded only for people at particular risk of disease. You can choose to pay for vaccines that you are not eligible to receive for free.
How effective is the MMR vaccine?
After a single dose of MMR vaccine, 90–95 out of 100 people will be protected from measles, 69–81 protected from mumps and 90–97 from rubella. After a second dose of MMR vaccine the number of people protected from these diseases increases, and almost everyone will be protected from measles and rubella, and up to 88% protected from mumps.
How is the MMR vaccine given?
The MMR vaccine is given as an intramuscular injection (injected into a muscle in your thigh or upper arm). It is given as 2 doses, usually at 12 months and 15 months of age.
Like all medicines, vaccines can cause side effects, although not everyone gets them. Most side effects are mild and short lived. The chance of a severe reaction from MMR is very small, but the risks from not being vaccinated are very serious.
Because the MMR vaccine combines 3 separate vaccines (measles, mumps, rubella) in 1 injection, each vaccine can cause reactions at different times after the injection.
- About a 6–10 days after the MMR injection, some children get a very mild form of measles. This includes a rash, high temperature, loss of appetite and a general feeling of being unwell for about 2 or 3 days.
- Around 1–4 weeks after having the MMR injection, 1 in 50 children develop a mild form of mumps. This includes swelling of the glands in the cheek, neck or under the jaw. It lasts for a day or two.
- Around 12–14 days after the injection, the rubella vaccine may cause a brief rash and possibility a slightly raised temperature. On rare occasions, a rash may also occur up to 6 weeks later. Rarely, at around 1–3 weeks, some adults experience painful, stiff or swollen joints, which can last for around 3 days.
There's less chance of side effects after the second dose of MMR than the first.
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Risk of autism
Vaccines do not cause autism. The confusion came about because in 1998 a British doctor thought there was a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. It has since been found that the doctor had changed the patient data and the laboratory reports were incorrect. The study was removed from the scientific literature and the British authorities removed the doctor’s licence to practice medicine.
There are now many well-conducted studies that have addressed this issue, and some studies have more than one million children in them. These studies strongly show no evidence of any connection between autism and the MMR vaccine, even among at-risk individuals. The MMR vaccine is very safe.
- Further evidence of MMR vaccine safety – scientific and communications considerations Annals of Internal Medicine, March 2019
- Evidence shows vaccines unrelated to autism Immunisation Advisory Centre, NZ
- The MMR vaccine and autism – sensation, refutation, retraction, and fraud NCBI
- Measles, mumps, rubella vaccine, inflammatory bowel disease and autism Immunisation Advisory Centre, NZ
- What are the facts about vaccines? Health Navigator NZ
The following links provide further information on the MMR vaccine:
- Priorix – measles, mumps, rubella vaccine The Immunisation Advisory Centre, NZ
- Measles advice 2019 Ministry of Health, NZ
- Measles The Immunisation Advisory Centre, NZ
- Mumps The Immunisation Advisory Centre, NZ
- Rubella (German measles) The Immunisation Advisory Centre, NZ
- Protect your unborn child HealthEd, NZ, 2017
- The New Zealand National Immunisation Schedule
- Tips following immunisation Ministry of Health, NZ
- Quick answers to frequent MMR questions The Immunisation Advisory Centre, NZ