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Immunisation

Parents' concerns about MMR

In 1998, research by Wakefield et al suggested a possible link between the MMR vaccine, inflammatory bowel disease and autism. Sensational media reporting of these findings led to concerns amongst parents about whether they should give their child the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine. Unsure of the right decision to make, several parents choose not to immunise their children, which resulted in a significant increase in the number of cases of measles and mumps.

Since 1998, the research findings by Wakefield et al have been discredited by many other scientific studies, which have produced good scientific evidence to suggest there is not a link between MMR, inflammatory bowel disease and autism. As a consequence, some parents we interviewed had few concerns about giving their child MMR.

 

She checked with her health visitor but felt confident there was no need to be concerned about MMR.

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I suppose when I was looking, when my oldest son was about coming up for needing immunisations, there was quite a lot I suppose particularly about MMR in the, in the media. But I never really had too many concerns about getting him immunised really. And it had always been something I just assumed that we'd do and be happy to go ahead with. There were I suppose, I probably thought a bit more about it just because of the information that was there. I think I got some from the health visitor when he was very tiny, when he was first born, about the first lot of immunisations he was going to need. And I think as regards the MMR that was more, again I got some information from the health visitor, but also from the media. But I don't think I particularly went looking for a great deal of information specifically about immunisation. I don't, I felt quite comfortable with having him 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.

Initial concerns did still exist amongst many parents when making their decisions about their child's MMR, but after gathering information and weighing up the risks they felt reassured enough to go ahead with it. Some of these parents found it very difficult to make a decision and were worried for a long time before they made a final decision. 

It is normal for parents to be concerned about their children's health and it's important for them to find reliable scientific evidence on which to base their decisions and there is now a mass of this information available.  

 

She had concerns about autism but after reading an independent research review she decided that...

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I'm the leader with a kids' group, as a volunteer. I've been doing that for a number of years and over the course of that time I've seen a lot of, not a lot, but a few, fair few children with autistic spectrum disorders, invariably boys. Which I think was why I was especially concerned because obviously I had a son.   

So for me the decision was never not to vaccinate or not, it was a decision between triple jabs or single jabs. And I guess I just felt I really needed to be informed. Because you know that the GPs are going to tell you that it's, the right thing to do is to have the triple jab. Because that's what they have to do. And I just wanted some sort of more impartial view. So again we're lucky, we had another friend who's a hospital doctor. And he pointed me in the direction of a paper, which had been written. It's from Drugs and Therapeutics Bulletin, volume 41, number 4, April 2003, page 25. And it says at the top, 'The independent review from the consumers' association'. I'm not sure which consumers' association. But what it is, is a review of a lot of studies that have been done, looking for links between MMR and autism. 

And I read this and to summarise, one of the things it says is that autism has increased, or recorded incidences of autism have increased, you know, over the last ten or twenty years. The sort of line of autism has gone up like this. But at the time that the MMR jab was introduced, which I think was 1988, you might have expected the rate of increase to suddenly spike upwards like that. But the gist of this paper was that, although it was increasing, it would, wasn't increasing any more because of the MMR jabs. And it also suggested that there wasn't any link between numbers of people who reported autism whether they'd been vaccinated or not vaccinated. Again there didn't seem to be any connection. It seemed equally likely that you would report development of autism if you hadn't been vaccinated. So on the basis of this I think I tried to engage my scientific brain and think, 'Okay, you know, these are independent people. They haven't got a particular axe to grind here'. There are further risks associated with the single jabs, because your child is not immunised for a longer period of time and is therefore in slightly more danger themselves, but also posing a slightly greater risk to the rest of the population, particularly babies who haven't been immunised because they're younger. So with a slightly heavy heart I thought I'd go for the triple jab. If I hadn't read this, I'm not entirely sure what I would have done actually. But this was sufficient for me to make my mind up.

 

They were concerned that their child might be disabled in some way from MMR, which they didn't...

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When I was pregnant, then we had lots of tests to ensure that I, the baby wasn't going to be disabled. Because, however awful that sounds, then we both knew that if we were going to have a baby, which we very much wanted, then we had to make sure that he was going to be okay. Because we knew it would put too much pressure on ourselves, but also he wouldn't perhaps have his needs met as fully as he might otherwise have. So when he was born and things were fine, then we knew that he was going to have to have an MMR. And we knew that there was a, a risk attached to MMR. And all we knew was what we'd heard in the media. But we also knew that the NHS were mounting quite a vigorous campaign to say that it was a perfectly safe injection. And yet there was an equally vociferous group of parents who were saying, 'Look, it really isn't'. So because of the decision that we had taken during my pregnancy we didn't want to give him anything that would potentially make him disabled. I know other parents take that decision with not, not perhaps the same amount of gravity, but we specifically had that in mind.

A few parents did not feel that they were able to find enough reassurance and decided that MMR was not the right decision for their child and chose single vaccines or not to immunise (see 'Deciding not to give my child MMR').

Some parents who had initially been concerned that after having MMR, their child might develop inflammatory bowel disease or autism had felt reassured after learning more about MMR and how autism develops, for example that MMR has been used in the USA since the early 1970s and reported serious reactions have been very rare (see 'Deciding to give my child MMR').

 

Believed the evidence wasn't strong enough to prove a causal link between MMR and autism.

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The underlying piece of evidence I was told was basically they took files from autistic, they were looking at, at trying to find links between autistic children and looked at everything they had in common. And one of the things that they all had in common was MMR. Which was inevitable because at the time everybody was being vaccinated with it. But it didn't, to me that doesn't justify any kind of cause, link. I mean it was probably something worth investigating just like wheat and hamburgers over, you know, a certain period of time, but it doesn't, in no way does it, you know, was it conclusive for me at all. It didn't allay necessarily other fears but it was, you know, basically wasn't enough for me to feel that it was, you know, a strong piece of research to support any, a problem with it.

 

Learning that MMR had been used in other countries for many years eased her concerns about there...

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And she was, you know, very sort of... from a sort of top overview telling me about the information that's coming from the States and various other countries and how many countries are actually using the MMR and how many years they've been using the MMR and that, you know, there is not a link, that, you know, and I think I needed to hear someone in her position saying, 'There is not a link between the MMR and autism.' And, so I think that's, like I say, and I think it was having that initial conversation where she said that, that really kind of tipped me over to think, 'Yeah, OK, I think we're going to go with doing this.'

 

She was reassured when her health visitor told her that the symptoms of autism tend to appear...

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I'm not too worried, I think there's so little to suggest that it's linked to the autism question that, that I just think I'll just go ahead and have my fingers crossed. I spoke to my health visitor about it extensively again and she's been really great for information. And she was saying as well, you know, with hindsight a lot of the parents that have reported autism following the MMR, with hindsight they have actually, there have been aspects of their child's behaviour before that, that could have pointed to it. And of course it's to do with the timing and, you know, the symptoms of autism appear just after, round about or round about the time that the MMR is given. It just seems to be a coincidence. So I think we, we've just decided to bite the bullet and have it done because then he'll be immunised against these diseases.

A few parents had been concerned that their child's immune system was already compromised in some way and that MMR may make the situation worse, for example if their child was premature, or already had allergies or bowel problems. After getting advice from health professionals, these parents felt reassured enough to give their child MMR. 

Every parent should have access to a trained health professional to chat about their concerns, the risks of catching the diseases and 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. 

 

She was concerned that her premature baby's immune system may not be developed enough, so she...

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What I've heard is the immunisation is these three things going into them in one go, you know. That sort of terrified me that if he was sort of weak or ill or small, you know, how was he meant to cope, how was his immune system meant to cope with all that? I mean I've been explained, you know, that it's so tiny that it doesn't, it shouldn't make a difference to them. But I, you know, he wasn't your average, you know, buxom 1-year-old boy, you know.  

I think every mum has their concerns but [my consultant] knew mine were more specific to [my son] being young. And that's why I think he said, 'Look, if you're that worried, wait until he's a little bit older, you know, wait till he's corrective age'. Because at 1 year old he would have been actually 9 months old physically. I still think, I mean I think 1 is, I think you look at your child and if they're a small 1 and they've been ill for a while and stuff then it might be good to wait. I also did it, I think I did it in October. I felt like I should do it before winter came in because obviously babies' immune systems and stuff, with colds. And so I sort of thought, 'I'll get it done now before we get to full cold season'.
 
 

She was anxious that her daughter's bowel problems and weak immune system may get worse with MMR...

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We were just, in just such a state. I couldn't tell you how worried we were. I think it's being older parents as well. And with her already having the bowel problems and being such a sickly little girl that, anyway it was done.  

She'd be, sickness and diarrhoea, like viruses, anything that was, well, it didn't really have to be about, she would just get these infections. It's as if she was really, her immune system was really weak and we didn't know the reason behind it. In fact a couple of times when she was small, when she was a baby, she was hospitalised because of them.

But altogether she just seemed to be always poorly. And then when she was about 18 months she started becoming really constipated, badly. I mean she would go like 10 to 14 days and when she did finally go it was just murder, she would scream. It's just something I never want to see again. We had to use suppositories on her, and again she was under the hospital for that, under a specialist. And it was just terrible. So it was just those kind of things really, constant infections of her, of her, you know, her system, and tummy viruses, tummy bugs and things like that.

And at that age she was coming up to having the MMR?

Well, yes, because she was like 13 months and there was just no way we would consider, well, she was never really well enough to have it. It was just one thing after another, you know, she'd be, like I said I'd be at work and I'd be off all the time, and they were very good. But that's just the way she was.  

And it worried me because of us, of us, being older, we thought maybe, because I was 40 when I had Ellie and I thought it, I, yes, I thought with me being 40 I might, it might be that that's made her so weak in, in her resistance to anything. But as I said, you know, as time went on and we were worrying about the MMR, and she was 2' when we finally did give, give it to her, or get, you know, allow her to have it done. But there'd been a lot of anguish before that, leading up to that. And it was unnecessary, looking back now, it was unnecessary.  

A few parents were worried about whether they should give their child MMR because he/she had an egg allergy. There is no evidence to suggest that children with egg allergies should not be given MMR and it can be given in a hospital setting if parents are concerned.

 

Concern that her son's egg allergy might cause a reaction, led him to have the MMR vaccine in...

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Our youngest son had an allergic reaction, I can't remember what age he was, but quite a severe allergic reaction, and we took him to the doctor. They identified it as an allergic reaction. And then he went to hospital to have some blood tests done, one of the results of which was that he was allergic, mildly allergic to egg white. They're still, he's still in the process of having further blood tests taken, and we haven't received the results yet of those, to find out whether he's allergic to anything else, and there's been a broader spectrum of allergies that have been tested. And because he's allergic to egg white, in which the vaccines are cultured, they, the medical staff felt that it was safer for him to have his jabs in a controlled environment in case he had an allergic reaction, so that he could be taken care of quickly and effectively. And so we took him to hospital. He had his MMR jab and was absolutely fine. Had absolutely no reaction whatsoever to it, not even a slightly swollen leg or any, you know, anything at all, he was absolutely fine. But he will be having his MMR booster in hospital as well, just to make sure that he's okay.

Most parents who had given their child the MMR pre-school booster, had less concern making a decision, largely because their child had not had a reaction to the first dose of MMR. 

A very small number of parents were anxious that the previous reactions that their other children had, which they personally believed were triggered by MMR, might occur again. Research studies since 1998 have produced good scientific evidence to suggest there is not a link between MMR, autism and inflammatory bowel disease.

 

She felt too frightened to give her other children MMR because of the reaction her oldest son had.

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While [my son] had his problems in December of 97, I was actually expecting another baby, who was born in June 98. And that was another little boy. And he had has vaccinations at 2, 3 and 4 months, but he hasn't had the MMR vaccine. I was too afraid. I didn't know if there was something genetically with myself and my husband that made my children more susceptible to an infection triggered by the vaccination or whatever. And to be honest, it wasn't a chance that I could really take. I was half afraid to make that decision just in case I ended up with two children like [my first son], and one child with the problems that, that [my son] has is absolutely enough. It would be very difficult to have two children the same way.

And I personally don't know if it was something in the measles, something in the mumps, something in the rubella, I don't know. It could be one thing in any one of them vaccinations. It could be the fact that they're given as a threesome. I just don't know. So that's what makes me afraid to do it. And because they are live vaccines, would I be opening my children to the risk of something happening by giving them the vaccine? It's just such a hard place to be. I would like someone just to say to me, 'Do you know what? It's all right. You can have them done because I guarantee you they're going to be fine'. But even then I'd probably laugh and think, 'No, I don't think so'.

Now I'd need a cast-iron guarantee written in stone before I'd even venture down that path again. But then obviously as I've said I'm running a risk anyway, because they're, my children aren't vaccinated. So what, what infections am I opening, making them more susceptible to and what are the consequences of those?  But I just don't know. I don't know which way to do it. I mean the amount of times myself and my husband have sat and discussed this, you wouldn't even believe. 'Well, should we or shouldn't we? Should we, shouldn't we? Yes, I will. No, no, I won't'. 
 
 

They believed MMR triggered autism in their older son and were concerned about the safety of the...

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Mother' If the research is properly read, it becomes very apparent that these various researchers, including the very much maligned gastroenterologist, who is in everybody's mind, he doesn't say that's it affects every child. He's actually talking about a subset. He's talking about a small group. But if we could get past all this contention to the point where they can say, 'Right, well, let's identify these children so they are no longer at risk, take them out of the loop'. Look at a different way of addressing these problems. But until they get past that and treat parents with respect, as individuals who've got minds and thought process and the ability to reason. And until they start listening to researchers and accept that they're not actually trying to cause a blanket scare' they're not trying to, then we know, we're not going to get past this. 

And as long as this situation stays in place, our youngest baby, our baby will not be vaccinated, at all, and we will regard all medicines with extreme circumspection. We're actually having another baby and that baby won't be vaccinated and the same will hold true. And we're looking at every other way we can to protect our two youngest children because this is not a decision we've taken lightly. And I would want to make that absolutely plain to anybody whose looking on this on website. It's not an easy decision and neither you nor I, [my husband] would say it's an easy'

Father' No, well due to the MMR, we took seven years to find out what we believe is the truth and that's based on what we're doing now, and that's no vaccinations whatsoever.

 

She was concerned that swelling which had occurred in her daughter's arm after MMR, might happen...

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She had the injection and then about ten hours later, it swelled up from about where the site of the injection were down to her elbow, that's where about three times as big as her arm. It went hard, yellow she was put on to antibiotics, antihistamines. They said it was reaction to it or it could have been some infection from the injection. Or they'd put too much vaccine in as well, that was another one, which I didn't think they could actually do that, but it was something that they said it were. And that took about a week to go, she was fine after that.  

And so when my little boy needed his doing two years later, I was very reluctant to have it done and I expressed my concerns to the health visitor. But she wasn't very, I don't know, she didn't really take much notice. She just said, 'Oh well, it's something that happens, he'll be fine'. And he had the injection and it was disastrous because he ended up in hospital for three days and his arm swelled up, across his chest, his shoulder, down his hand, his hands, fingers, it was just huge. He was on IV antibiotics, plastic surgeons were involved, they didn't know whether it were infection. They were going to operate so that was a nasty time. So my views on it now have changed a lot.  

The safety of the vaccines was a concern for some parents. A few were worried about the information available on the long-term effects of the MMR vaccine. One mother who had these concerns had found it reassuring to learn that the same MMR vaccine used in the UK had been used in the USA since the early 1970s, and of the millions of children given MMR, accounts of reported adverse reactions was rare.

A few of these parents had concerns about the ingredients of the vaccines and that live vaccines were given which the occasional parent personally believed were too much for a child's body to cope with. There has been no scientific evidence to suggest this is the case. The mumps, measles and rubella vaccines contain strains of the virus that has been weakened (attenuated) so that it will stimulate an immune response to natural measles, mumps and rubella viruses but will only produce very mild symptoms of these diseases, if any at all.

 

Learning that MMR had been used in other countries for many years eased her concerns about the...

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And then another thing actually I did look up and the MMR's been going on, and I can't remember how long but I think it's been going for over twenty years in America and in other countries and they've never had this problem. And I mean I lived in America for ten years and I know if there had been any kind of problem with the MMR, believe me the Americans would be suing and they'd be up in arms and it would be taken off. So that was also something actually, that in other countries it's been fine, it's been going for years and, and it's been going long enough that if autism was related to the MMR I think they would have picked up on that by now. So we're, we're a lot later giving that immunisation than anywhere else. And I do believe in America they'd be on it if there were any problems, any side-effects. So that was something else I did believe.

Last reviewed October 2015.
Last updated October 2015.

 

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