Easy-to-read medicine information about the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine – what it is, when is it given and possible side effects.
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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.
Live attenuated vaccines do not usually cause problems in people who are healthy. If it does cause symptoms of the disease, it is usually milder than if you had caught the disease. Live attenuated vaccines given by injection are generally effective after one dose.
Why is vaccination against measles, mumps and rubella important?
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. 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): is usually a mild infection that gets better within about 7 to 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.
Vaccination with the MMR vaccine is the best way to protect against measles, mumps and rubella. The speed that these infections can spread in the community depends on the number of people who are not immunised. If enough people are immunised, these diseases will not be spread. This is called herd-immunity.
Who should get the MMR vaccine?
The MMR vaccine is funded in New Zealand as part of the childhood immunisation schedule for children at 15 months and 4 years of age.
In an outbreak, the first dose of MMR vaccine can be given at any time from 12 months of age, and the second dose as early as 28 days later.
Note: If you or your child has had only one dose or has missed any vaccinations at the recommended ages, you can catch up on them. Talk to your GP or nurse.
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. All women of childbearing age need to know if they are protected from rubella. If you are planning a pregnancy, check with your midwife or doctor if 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.
Who should NOT get the MMR vaccine?
Since the MMR vaccine is a live vaccine, it can cause mild measles, mumps or rubella infections. It should not be given if you:
- 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 last 4 weeks.
How effective is the MMR vaccine?
Two doses of MMR vaccine are 97% effective at preventing measles, 88% effective for mumps and 97% for rubella.
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 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.
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. Parents can ask for the first MMR dose anytime after 12 months of age and the second one 4 weeks after the first.
Possible side effects
Like all medicines, vaccines can cause side effects, although not everyone gets them.
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Risk of autism
There is no evidence that the MMR vaccine causes autism. It 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. Read more:
- 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
- Rubella (German measles) The Immunisation Advisory Centre, New Zealand
- Measles The Immunisation Advisory Centre, New Zealand
- Mumps The Immunisation Advisory Centre, New Zealand
- Rubella and women HealthEd, New Zealand, 2010
- The New Zealand National Immunisation Schedule
- Tips following immunisation Ministry of Health, New Zealand