MMR Vaccine: Common Side Effects In Children

Do you worry that your child will suffer a side effect to the MMR vaccine? But the benefits of the vaccine far outweigh its mild reactions. Read on to make an informed decision.

By Dr Rajath Athreya

MMR Vaccine: Common Side Effects In Children

New parents Rajani and Sandeep are always up-to-date with their son’s immunisation. However, when the little one developed severe side-effects after a MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccination, the parents were anxious. The couple expressed their apprehension about getting a repeat dose for their child to the family doctor, who assured them about the vaccine's safety. 

Many new parents may have the same concerns as Rajani and Sandeep. After all, some children  develop severe side effects to the MMR vaccine. Don't worry. Here is what you need to know about this important vaccination and its side effects.

What is the MMR vaccine?

MMR is a combination vaccine for three infections: measles, mumps and rubella. These are viral infections that can cause illness but can also have serious consequences that include brain damage, deafness and in some cases, even death. Vaccination is an effective way to prevent these infections. 

Also read: All You Need To Know About Pneumococcal Vaccine

What is Measles?

Measles is a viral infection that is extremely contagious and can spread through sneezing and coughing. In an infected person, the measles virus is found in the nose or throat mucus. The virus can spread even without close contact. A person who is not immune (by previous infection or vaccine) can contract the infection by entering a room that another person with measles left two hours ago!

Symptoms and complications

Expect your child to be unwell with a cough, fever, red eyes and a rash that rapidly spreads all over. One in five children may need to be hospitalised for severe side effects. And one in 15 individuals suffers serious complications.

These may include ear infection, chest infection, swelling of the brain (encephalitis) leading to brain damage, deafness and death in about 1 in 5,000 individuals with measles.

What is Mumps?

Mumps is a viral infection spread by coughing and sneezing, and through close contact with an infected person. 

Symptoms and complications

Most often, children get a fever, headache and painful swelling on the side of the face just below the ears. The ovaries and testes can also get swollen. Complications include infection and swelling of the brain (meningitis and encephalitis) and deafness.

What is Rubella?

Rubella is also called German Measles. It is a viral infection spreading in a similar way as the other two.

Symptoms and complications

Rubella is often a mild illness with fever, joint pains and a rash. Most people recover well from it. However, if a pregnant woman were to get rubella in early pregnancy, her baby could be born with serious birth defects (like cataracts, deafness and heart defects), such babies can also be born with permanent damage to the brain.

Why vaccinate?

In the pre-vaccination era, there would be outbreaks of these infections and serious consequences in some cases. It is very important to have vaccines (after repeat doses, protection is upwards of 97 per cent) for protecting your child. Universal uptake of vaccine will cut down virus circulation in the population and hence protect those who cannot have the vaccine (very young infants, individuals with serious disorders of immunity)

How safe are these vaccines?

MMR vaccines are completely safe. A vaccine to come to patient use undergoes strict clinical trails both for safety and efficacy. Also, these vaccines are in use for more than three decades world over and have an excellent safety record.

There were concerns raised about a link between childhood autism and MMR vaccine. However, this link was not found to be true and has been disproved. 

Like with any vaccine or medicine there is a very small risk of side effects. These are, either very mild (like mild fever or rash which goes away) or are extremely rare (to the tune of 1 in several million). One should note that the risk of infection and severe complications without vaccine are significantly higher than the side effects from the vaccine itself.

When your child should get vaccinated?

In India, the MMR vaccine is given in three doses — at nine months, in the second year and again in the 4th year.

How do we time the vaccines?

Follow the immunisation schedule provided by your paediatrician. If you have missed any appointments, discuss with your doctor about catching up as soon as possible.

Who should not get this vaccination?

Only children with seriously suppressed immunity (e.g. on medications after a bone marrow transplant) should not have live vaccines like MMR. This will be clearly explained to those families by their doctor.

What are the common side effects of the MMR vaccine?

Most children do not have any side effects. As the MMR vaccine mimics the mild form of infection, some children may get a faint and temporary rash, 6–10 days after vaccination; a mild swelling in the jaw and pain in the joints. None of these are serious. 

Also read: Five Reasons Why Routine Check-up Of Your Child Is A Must

What are rare side effects of the MMR vaccine?

Very rarely, there may be bruising (due to low platelets), seizures and a severe allergic reaction (anaphylaxis) to the vaccine. The first two are rare occurrences and the chances of a similar reaction to an actual measles infection are much higher. Anaphylaxis is even rarer; the vaccine is safe to have in a well-equipped medical facility to handle such events.

What to do when your child has an allergic reaction to the MMR vaccine?

If there are mild reactions (more common with the first dose), there is no need to do anything. However, if a serious allergic reaction has happened, the subsequent doses should be taken in a hospital setting.

To sum it up, MMR is a safe and effective vaccine when taken under medical supervision and is strongly recommended. It is not only to prevent those infections in your child but also to bring down natural infection rates in the community to a low level. This helps protect immuno-suppressed children and infants, who cannot get vaccines. 

The author, Dr Rajath Athreya, is a consultant paediatrician and lead neonatologist at a leading children's hospital in Bengaluru. 

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