Easy-to-read medicine information about the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine – what it is, when it is given and possible side effects.
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. Read more about the effectiveness of the MMR vaccine.
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 her 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 adults, born on/after 1 January 1969, who have not completed a 2-dose course of MMR vaccine.
It is part of the childhood immunisation schedule for children at 15 months and 4 years of age.
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. Read more about measles overseas and in New Zealand
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?
The best place to go for vaccinations is your family medical clinic. 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.
If you don’t have a family doctor, you can go to one of the after-hour medical clinics. Ring 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.
If given to babies under 12 months of age, the measles component of MMR vaccine may not be effective and they are unlikely to develop enough protection against measles. It is best given to babies older than 12 months. If there is an outbreak of measles, and it is given earlier, it will still need to be given at 15 months and 4 years.
MMR vaccine, if given within 72 hours of exposure to the measles virus, may provide protection to the unimmunised and thus limit the spread of measles.
How is the MMR vaccine given?
The MMR vaccine is given as a subcutaneous injection (injected under your skin). It is given as 2 doses, usually at 15 months and 4 years of age.
Possible side effects
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 to 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 to 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, and 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
There is no evidence that the MMR vaccine causes autism.
The confusion came about because in 1998 a British doctor thought there was a link between the vaccine and autism, but no other studies have confirmed this. In fact, in 2004 the study was removed from the scientific literature and the British authorities removed the doctor’s licence to practice medicine. In 2008, it was found the doctor had changed the patient data and the laboratory reports were incorrect.
In March 2019, a large-scale Danish study found no evidence of any connection between autism and the MMR vaccine, even among at-risk individuals.
- 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, New Zealand
- The MMR vaccine and autism – sensation, refutation, retraction, and fraud NCBI
- Measles, mumps, rubella vaccine, inflammatory bowel disease and autism Immunisation Advisory Centre, New Zealand
The following links provide further information on MMR vaccine:
- Measles, mumps rubella and the MMR vaccine Auckland Regional Public Health Service
- Priorix – measles, mumps, rubella vaccine The immunisation Advisory Centre, New Zealand
- Measles advice 2019 Ministry of Health, NZ
- Measles The Immunisation Advisory Centre, New Zealand
- Mumps The Immunisation Advisory Centre, New Zealand
- Rubella (German measles) The Immunisation Advisory Centre, New Zealand
- Protect your unborn child HealthEd, New Zealand, 2017
- The New Zealand National Immunisation Schedule
- Tips following immunisation Ministry of Health, New Zealand
- Quick answers to frequent MMR questions The Immunisation Advisory Centre, NZ