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MMR vaccination: what you need to know

Discussion around the MMR vaccine online has created confusion and worry for parents in recent years.

This has led many to decide to avoid the MMR and other vaccines for their children, despite robust evidence supporting vaccine safety. Discover why vaccination is so important.

1. The MMR vaccine can save lives

A combined vaccination for measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) is available (via the NHS) to children in two doses – at age one and at around three years and four months old.

By having these recommended injections, children are highly unlikely to develop these conditions. They are sometimes viewed as harmless illnesses. However, measles, mumps and rubella can lead to serious complications such as meningitis, encephalitis or deafness. In some sad cases these complications are fatal. If contracted when pregnant, these conditions can affect an unborn baby and sometimes cause miscarriage.

2. Measles could be on the rise again

Since the measles vaccine was introduced in the UK in 1968, Public Health England estimates that 20 million measles cases and 4,500 deaths have been averted. Despite this, there has been a worrying spate of measles outbreaks in the last few years. GPs in England and Wales reported a 53% year-on-year increase in suspected measles cases, up from 1,693 in 2017 to 2,599 cases in 2018. (To date, 913 have been confirmed as measles by laboratory tests.) Around one third of people who contract measles are admitted to hospital.

Many of these recent measles outbreaks in the UK have been linked to European travel in Italy and Romania. It is important to ensure that everyone is fully immunised before travelling.

3. There is a lot of false information on the internet

A 1998 report by Andrew Wakefield used incorrect data to link MMR and autism. His work has been completely discredited and the link categorically denied. Subsequent studies have found no link. A 2019 study of 657,461 children found that there was no increased risk of autism in the vaccinated children versus the unvaccinated ones.

Despite this, there is a lot of ‘anti-vaxxer’ content on the internet regarding the MMR and other vaccinations based on Wakefield’s ‘findings’. A report from the Royal Society for Public Health has warned that social media is a “breeding ground for misleading information and negative messaging around vaccination” and that there must be a crackdown on “fake news” online. The Chief Medical Officer for England, Professor Dame Sally Davies, has reiterated that the MMR is safe.

4. Herd immunity isn’t working

When enough of the population is immunised against a disease, it helps to stop contagious diseases from spreading. In the UK the target is that 95% of babies are inoculated in order for this ‘herd immunity’ to protect the population. Herd immunity is vital. This is because it gives protection to vulnerable people such as newborn babies, elderly people and those who are too sick to be vaccinated.  

In England, the rate of MMR inoculations has decreased in all of the past four years. Figures for 2017-18 showing 91.2% having the first dose and 87.2% having the second dose (although rates are slightly higher elsewhere in the rest of the UK).

5. It is not too late to be immunised

Adults or young people who missed out on the MMR can book to receive their injections and will need two doses. This is particularly advised for people who are travelling to an area that has a known outbreak of one of the conditions, or people who are thinking of starting a family but haven’t been vaccinated.

6. It’s not just MMR that is vital

As well as MMR, there has been a drop in the number of children receiving the six-in-one vaccine (which protects against diphtheria, hepatitis B, tetanus, whooping cough, polio and Hib). Previously a five-in-one vaccine, this is given in three doses when a baby is eight, 12 and 16 weeks old.