Immunisation

Deciding not to give my child MMR (measles, mumps and rubella)

The UK Immunisation schedule recommends that children be given two doses of the MMR vaccine, the first at 12 months of age, and the second at 3-5 years of age. For more information see ‘What is immunisation?’ and ‘Why do we immunise?’.

Immunisation of children is not compulsory in the UK, as it is in some other countries, so parents choose whether or not to have their child immunised. The overwhelming majority of parents believe in immunisation for their children. We have however included here the views of a few parents who do not believe immunisation is right for their own child based on their personal beliefs. Their views represent a small proportion of the population. 

It is absolutely right and normal that parents are concerned about the optimal health of their children but it is important that parents seek reliable scientific evidence on which to base their decisions and there is now a mass of this information available (see Resources & Information section' Medical Research on MMR, Autism and bowel diseases).

Every parent should have access to a trained health professional to chat about the risks of catching the diseases and about the benefits and potential risks of immunisation for their own child, and the population in general. In addition to their GP, health visitor or practice nurse, there is also an immunisation advisor in each local health protection unit, whom parents can talk to about their child's immunisations. 

Although the weight of scientific evidence shows that MMR is safe, some parents continue to have initial concerns about the risk to their child and making the decision whether or not to give their child MMR is a difficult one. The majority of parents do decide to immunise their children with MMR. .

A small number of parents that we interviewed had either decided not to immunise their child at all against measles, mumps and rubella or had chosen to have them immunised using single vaccines. Here, they explain their personal reasons for their decision.

They had concerns about possible reactions from the vaccine
Parents who decided not to give their child MMR were concerned that the vaccine might cause a reaction in their child. Most children who have the MMR vaccine do not have any problems with it, or if reactions do occur they are usually mild. One couple whose children were lactose intolerant held a personal belief that, because of their health problems, their children would be at risk of a reaction if they had the MMR or the single vaccines.

Although numerous research studies since 1988, conducted in different countries have produced good scientific evidence to suggest there is not a link between MMR, autism and bowel disease, a very small number of parents were anxious that previous reactions that their older children had, which they personally believed were triggered by MMR, might occur with their younger children. (See 'Severe and disputed reactions to MMR').  

They had concerns about the safety of the vaccine
The combined MMR has been used in the UK since 1988 and in the USA since the early 1970s. (See 'Deciding to give my child MMR'.) However some parents were concerned that the long-term effects of the combined MMR vaccine were not known. Other reasons given for deciding not to go ahead with MMR were concern about the ingredients of the vaccines and that live vaccines were used and that these would be too much for a child's body to cope with. There has been no scientific evidence to suggest this is the case. The viruses in a live vaccine have been weakened to give immunity with no, or very mild symptoms.

They believed that immunity from natural infection is better than from immunisation
A very small number of parents personally believed that immunity derived from actually having the disease was more effective than the immunity obtained from vaccines. These beliefs applied to all immunisations, not just to MMR. No immunisation is 100% effective but it does offer a high level of immunity from infectious diseases. Gaining immunity from actually having the disease involves the risk of a child developing a complication.

How parents protect their child from these diseases
Parents who decided against letting their child have MMR stressed that deciding not to immunise was not an easy decision to make, and not one they had taken lightly. Some of them did say that they were continually reassessing their decision when any changes were introduced to the immunisation programme and that they might immunise when their children were older. A very small number of these parents gave their children a daily Vitamin A supplement in the belief that it would strengthen their immune system should they catch any of the diseases. While it is true that a child with an underlying health condition is more likely to have complications and/or die from measles, healthy children can be very ill too. Allowing them to catch the diseases means that they run the risk of complications.

Feelings now about decision made
Parents who decided that their child should not have MMR or that they should be given single vaccines said they were generally happy with the decision they had made. Some of these parents were certain they had made the right decision for their child. A couple of parents were considering giving a single rubella vaccine to their daughters to protect them as they reached puberty. A single rubella vaccine is not currently available on the NHS.

The rubella part of the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine is given to a young child rather than teenage girls, so that if a child caught the disease they can't pass it on to pregnant women. Once it became clear that immunisation at an early age would protect for many years, it was decided to immunise both girls and boys in order to stop the spread of rubella in children, and so gain 'herd immunity'.

Last reviewed October 2015.
Last updated July 2013

 

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