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Measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine

Key points

  • The MMR vaccine is a combined injection that protects against measles, mumps and rubella (German measles).
  • It’s usually offered during childhood as part of the routine vaccination schedule.
  • You will need two doses of the vaccine to get enough protection against measles, mumps and rubella.

Pros and cons

There are a number of possible advantages and disadvantages to having the MMR vaccine.

  • Pros of the MMR vaccine include that it has helped to reduce the number of children catching measles, mumps and rubella.
  • Cons of the MMR vaccine include some side-effects, such as a fever or rash and, rarely, other complications.

Read more pros and cons

 The MMR vaccine is a combined injection that protects you against measles, mumps and rubella

What is the MMR vaccine?

The MMR vaccine is an injection that prevents you from catching measles, mumps and rubella. It’s usually given during childhood as part of the routine vaccination schedule. However, you can have the MMR vaccine at any age.

Although most people usually recover from these three infections, each one can be unpleasant and may have serious consequences. These are explained below.

  • Measles is a very contagious infection and may cause complications such as diarrhoea, ear infections, pneumonia, seizures (fits) and encephalitis (inflammation of the brain).
  • Mumps is also a contagious infection. It may cause complications such as meningitis and deafness. Mumps may also cause inflammation of your pancreas. In boys, it may damage the testicles and in girls, it may cause swelling of the ovaries. 
  • Rubella (German measles) is usually a mild infection; however, it can be harmful to pregnant women. It may cause deafness, brain and heart damage, and eye defects in unborn babies. Rubella can also lead to miscarriage. The earlier you’re infected, the more likely your baby may be affected. After 16 weeks, the risk is very small. 

How does the MMR vaccine work?

The MMR vaccine is made from weakened forms of each of the measles, mumps and rubella viruses. The vaccine stimulates your immune system to respond and remember the viruses. This means that if you become infected with any of the three viruses, your immune system will recognise the virus and act to prevent infection.

When is the MMR vaccine given?

Your child will usually be invited to have the first MMR vaccine when he or she is between 12 to 13 months old. This is part of the routine vaccination schedule. He or she will then be invited to have the second dose between the ages of three years and four months to five years old.

If your child needs to be protected against measles quickly, for example, during a measles outbreak, he or she can have the second dose one month after the first dose. If your child has the second dose before the age of 18 months, your child should still receive the routine dose. This will be when he or she reaches three years and four months to five years old, before starting school.

The MMR vaccine can be offered to young people when they leave school or before they enter further education if they haven’t already had both doses.

If you aren’t already immune to rubella, you will be offered the MMR vaccine if:

  • you’re a woman of childbearing age
  • you’re a healthcare worker who may come into contact with pregnant women
  • you have just had a baby

Talk to your GP about the MMR vaccine if you’re thinking about becoming pregnant and if you have never had the MMR vaccination.

You can receive the MMR vaccine at any age. It’s not dangerous to receive the MMR vaccine more than once. If you can’t remember whether or not you have had it, ask your GP.

The MMR vaccine will usually be given in your upper arm or on the outside of your upper thigh.

Is the MMR vaccine effective?

Since the MMR vaccine was introduced in the UK in 1988, the number of children catching measles, mumps and rubella has fallen. The vaccine has also led to a drop in the number of pregnant women developing rubella during pregnancy.

After the first dose of the MMR vaccine, 64 out of 100 people will be protected against mumps, 90 out of 100 people will be protected against measles and 95 out of 100 people will be protected against rubella.

You will need two doses of the vaccine to provide enough protection against measles, mumps and rubella. It’s not very common, but some people may not respond to the first dose of the vaccine. Therefore, it’s important to have two doses of the vaccine. This is so that the second dose can work on anyone who isn’t immunised following the first dose.

Special care

There are some people who shouldn’t have the MMR vaccine. These include:

  • people who have a severely weakened immune system because of an illness, such as HIV/AIDS
  • anyone who has had an anaphylactic reaction (a severe allergic reaction) to gelatine or the antibiotic neomycin
  • anyone who has had a confirmed anaphylactic reaction to a previous dose of the MMR vaccine
  • pregnant women

Your GP may advise to postpone you or your child’s MMR vaccine until a later date, if:

  • you or your child have received a blood donation of immunoglobulins
  • you or your child have a fever

Talk to your GP if you’re not sure whether you or your child should have the MMR vaccine.

Side-effects and safety

Side-effects are the unwanted but mostly mild and temporary effects of the vaccination. The three viruses in the vaccine act at different times and may produce different side-effects as they start to work.

About a week after the vaccination, you or your child may develop a fever or a rash. It usually lasts two to three days and is less likely to occur after the second dose of the vaccine.

Paracetamol or ibuprofen may help to reduce the symptoms of fever if you or your child is feeling unwell. At the time of your child’s immunisation, you should be given advice on the use and dose of paracetamol or ibuprofen to treat a fever.

You or your child may also get swollen glands two to three weeks after the MMR vaccine. This side-effect is temporary, and should only last for a short time.

It’s very rare; however, about one in every 1,000 immunised children may have a febrile convulsion. A febrile convulsion is a seizure or fit that is linked to a fever caused by an infection. However, the number of febrile convulsions caused by measles is much higher than the number the MMR vaccine may cause.

It’s not very common, but sometimes idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura (ITP) can occur in children following immunisation. ITP is a condition which affects your blood and can cause bruising. If your child does develop ITP, it may occur within six weeks of the first dose of the vaccination, but should settle on its own after six to eight weeks.

If your child develops ITP, he or she may need to have a blood test. This is done to check to see if the vaccine has been effective, before the second dose is given.

Side-effects of the vaccine are usually mild and, most importantly, they are milder than the potentially serious consequences of having measles, mumps or rubella. If you’re concerned about any of your or your child’s symptoms, contact your GP.

Egg allergy and the MMR vaccine

The MMR vaccine is grown within chick embryos (eggs). However, evidence shows that it’s safe to give the vaccine to nearly all children, even those who have a very severe reaction to eggs.

If, however, you or your child has had an anaphylactic reaction to gelatine, the antibiotic neomycin or a previous dose of the vaccine, you must let your GP know.

Autism and inflammatory bowel disorders

You may have heard of a suggested link between the MMR vaccine, autism and inflammatory bowel disorders. This link was suggested in 1998 when a group of researchers published a paper about 12 children who had bowel problems and similar symptoms to autism. The researchers didn’t prove their theory and they actually stated in their paper that they had not proved a link between autism and the MMR vaccine.

However, the resulting media attention gave the impression that there was one. This led to some parents deciding not to give their child the vaccine. The decision that some parents made is thought to have increased the number of people getting measles in some parts of the UK.

It’s important to note that there is a great deal of evidence available that shows no connection between the MMR vaccine,autism and inflammatory bowel disorders.

For more information about this evidence, see our FAQ.

If your child has autism, you will usually start to notice signs when he or she is around two to three years old. As the MMR injection is given at around this age, it’s easy to understand why some parents think there might be a link. 

Single vaccines

The MMR vaccine is recommended as a combined vaccine, rather than a series of single ones.

There are a number of reasons why the vaccines in the combined MMR aren’t routinely given separately in the UK.

  • You or your child would need to have six injections in total. This is more unpleasant because of the pain from each injection and six episodes of possible side-effects.
  • There may be more delay before being completely vaccinated, leaving you or your child at risk of measles, mumps and rubella for longer.
  • It could mean that fewer children have all the necessary vaccinations, increasing the level of measles, mumps and rubella in the UK.
  • Single vaccines have not passed UK safety and effectiveness testing.

For more information about single vaccines, see our FAQ.

Reviewed by Kuljeet Battoo, Bupa Health Information Team, January 2013.

For answers to frequently asked questions on this topic, see FAQs.

For sources and links to further information, see Resources.

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  • This information was published by Bupa's Health Information Team and is based on reputable sources of medical evidence. It has been reviewed by appropriate medical or clinical professionals. Photos are only for illustrative purposes and do not reflect every presentation of a condition. The content is intended only for general information and does not replace the need for personal advice from a qualified health professional. For more details on how we produce our content and its sources, visit the about our health information page.

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