Severe or disputed reactions to MMR
Most children who have the MMR vaccine do not have any problems with it or if reactions do occur they are usually mild. (See 'No Reaction to MMR'). 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.
Like any medicine, a vaccine is occasionally capable of causing serious problems. We know that these problems are extremely rare. For example, severe allergic reactions occur in less than 1 out of every million children*. Several other problems have been reported to occur after a child gets MMR vaccine. However, as these problems can happen for other causes and also occur in non-immunised children, it is rarely possible to know if the vaccine caused the problem in an individual child. These are sometimes referred to as disputed reactions. One way in which experts find out whether a vaccine causes a problem is to carry out studies of whole populations to see if the risk of severe problems is commoner in children who have or have not been immunised. Before making a decision, parents and professionals need also to know about problems from the disease and balance these against any risk from immunisation (see 'Parents' views of the diseases').
In 1998, research by Wakefield et al suggested a possible link between MMR, inflammatory bowel disease and autism. Since 1998, these research findings 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. The study by Wakefield et al was based on only eight children, with speculative findings that have now been discredited by most of the team that produced it and the editor of the Lancet.
However, a very small number of parents of children who had developed severe symptoms at the same time that their child received the MMR vaccine contest these findings and have a strong personal belief that MMR triggered these symptoms in their child.
These parents talked about the symptoms that their children had shortly after their MMR vaccine and why they believed their child's symptoms were triggered by the MMR vaccine.
One mother explained that her 8-year-old son had received his MMR vaccine when he was 13 months old and a couple of hours afterwards he developed agitation which lasted a couple of weeks, after which he had several petit mal epileptic episodes and stopped making any attempt to speak. He was diagnosed as having viral encephalitis. As he got older, he was also diagnosed with autism and epilepsy.
Her son was agitated and started having petit mal epilepsy after his MMR vaccine and was...
So we gave [my son] the medication. It didn't, it sort of controlled his, his agitated state for a short while, but continued to be quite agitated over a couple of weeks. I had taken him back to the doctor's a couple of times because of, well, the way that he was. And they told me that he was, just had a viral infection that couldn't be treated. We approached Christmas, and on Christmas Day [my son] wasn't interested in his presents or any, I mean he was over a year old so he, you know, he did, kind of knew, but he wasn't terribly interested.
On Boxing Day we went in, and we were late waking him up, because [my son] hadn't woken us, and generally [my son] used to, up, you know, wake at half past six, seven o'clock. Half past nine, ten o'clock we wake up and think, 'Oh my Lord, [my son] hasn't woken up yet'. So we've gone into his bedroom and he was in the cot and he appeared as if he'd had a stroke. His face was all drooping on one side and he was dribbling a lot. We took [my son] up to our local hospital and basically sat in A & E for quite a while. But then referred up on to the children's ward. And [my son] continued, he was having episodes where he was just looking straight at us but didn't seem to be aware of what we were doing or even of what he was doing. Now this happened, had happened a number of times up until [my son] had gone to hospital, but I thought it was just, you know what some children are like, they're just like, 'I'm not talking to you. I'm not your friend. Go away, leave me alone'.
[My son] went into the hospital, was up on the children's ward. Basically sort of it got late in to the evening, he hadn't been seen, because there was only skeleton staff on with it obviously being Boxing Day. The, the doctor came in and saw [my son]. [My son] had an episode where he was very, he just flopped back on to the bed, very unresponsive. He was poking, 'Little [name], wake up' and all the rest of it. Called one of the members of staff. She came in, summoned the doctor straight away. And [my son] had actually had a major epileptic fit. But he hadn't had a seizure as such, he'd had an absent fit, which is petit mal epilepsy. They took him into a side room, put a line into his arm to give him intravenous antibiotics. Had a brain scan later that night and it turned out that he had encephalitis, which I believe to be triggered by the vaccine because it was one lead on from one to the other to the other. It was kind of a progressive state.
Describes the health problems her son continued to develop after viral encephalitis was diagnosed...
And he's now 8 years old?
He's 8 years old. He'll be 9 this year.
So he completely lost his speech?
Lost his speech. And became very uncooperative to say the least. He's now diagnosed with autism, epilepsy, possible Crohn's disease, he hasn't been investigated, that was due to me not taking him to the hospital. Because I thought he's got enough going on in his life with what he has, than to put him through something else. It doesn't really make any difference whether he has or he hasn't. He takes his anti-convulsants on his, a twice daily basis. He has to take laxatives on a daily basis. He takes Paracetamol like it's running out of fashion, just to try and keep him chilled. He's now on Diazepam to try and keep, and he's on an adult's dose, just to try and keep him level. But it's not, it's not really working.
One father talked about the changes that had occurred in his daughter five days after she had the MMR vaccine. She had episodic symptoms where she stammered, her eye movement changed, her language and speech regressed, she was reluctant to make eye contact and she had a rash on her face. A doctor at the hospital described it as post viral encephalitis. Over the next few days she became detached and no longer wanted to play or dress up.
Three months after the MMR vaccine, more of her old self was coming back but she still had a stammer. He also said that retrospectively they had realised that there had been some mild changes in their son's behaviour at the time he had his MMR vaccine, but felt that in his son's case there was no evidence for a link.
Explains the changes in their daughter at the time she had her MMR vaccine.
Almost in the same breath one noticed that she was much regressed in terms of literally gagagagaga baby talk, which she'd never done, even when she was at the appropriate age she seemed to just learn words and so she never did this baby talk. And the other thing we noticed was that she was reluctant to make eye contact.
That evening I took my daughter to casualty. Nothing was better, she was showing the same symptoms, if anything they were a little bit worse. I said that, 'My daughter has suddenly developed these odd symptoms.' And quite frankly I was met with a kind of blanket of 'so what?' disbelief.
I was very fair, I said that there were three possible causes, there may well be others but these things have happened recently, she's had chicken pox about a month ago, she bumped her head about four days ago,' so we were very fair we did mention all these things, but she recovered straight away, she didn't lose consciousness and she told us all about it. She'd bumped her head a little bit so that could have been a possible cause of course. The other cause, the other possible culprit was the MMR, five days before.
It's also worth noting that just before she developed these odd neurological symptoms, she developed a rash it looked like a typical measles rash on her face. We actually said at the time, 'Oh that's her getting the measles' rather casually. She also had pink rims to her eyes, it looked like conjunctivitis but there was no gunge.
I saw about three or four doctors, two conventional ones and then a paediatrician. We finally gained admission to a ward, again where we were greeted with a certain amount of scepticism. I stayed in overnight with my daughter.
The following morning some paediatricians looked at her. I did describe it as episodic which it was at the time and another doctor actually witnessed quite a bout of stammering and said, 'Oh this is quite normal, speech doesn't develop'' I said, 'No, no I'm sorry, she's never had a stammer in her life, she can actually speak very well. This is completely new and it's overnight,' and these three possible causes and so on. And he said, 'Oh well, you know, go away for six weeks and go and see a speech therapist.' I said, 'No you don't understand, there is brain damage here, I'm certain there is some kind of overnight brain damage.'
The following day again, the paediatricians listened and were slightly more sympathetic but again you could see the scepticism because she was running around playing with her brother and without any apparent problem, and with, with very little hint of a stammer or stutter.
It was really only because I insisted that this happened occasionally that they asked whether we wanted her kept in for tests and we said, 'Yes, please do. And over the next few days they at least noticed episodes of weirdness where she goes sometimes she goes into a world of her own where you can’t even reach her and regresses massively. She was actually strangely malleable and biddable and weird symptoms like she wouldn’t dress up any more in her dressing up clothes. In terms of every day clothes she wouldn’t dress up in pretty dresses, which she’d adored. She was very girly. She would dress in trousers and insist on very plain colours and sort of plain rather tomboyish attire.
And these were all, if you like, weren’t hard medical symptoms but symptomatic of a change. A change that to us of course was massive in our own daughter. Having gone from being a daddy’s girl, she became very anti-me and when it got worse she actually developed what we, without even having consulted websites and good old Google or anything, what we described as autistic symptoms where she would literally go into a corner so she didn’t want to talk to any of us, and detached herself having been again wonderfully interactive with her brother when they played beautifully together. She became detached.
It’s also worth saying that a lot of these symptoms have gradually receded. We’re sort of three and a bit months beyond the jab, probably almost four now. And certainly her base line has climbed in terms of the way her symptoms are a) slightly milder, some of them, but also she seems to overcome them, her core being seems to have returned.
We lost her, straight after the MMR it’s as though the girl that we knew had disappeared and occasionally would reappear. Now it seems to be that this kind of, there’s this core, she’s really fighting hard to be back and that her real self is now fighting symptoms that attach to her, whereas before the symptoms took over and seemed to be her for a while. And so at least we know that. And also it’s worth noting that she doesn’t really have what we described as the autistic spectrum symptoms any more. She relates very well to her brother most of the time, she’s pretty good at the way she relates to us.
First thing in the morning when she has low blood sugar she’s terribly, physically prickly sometimes, and won’t be touched, which is something she never had before. She would just be so cuddly and warm and, and sweet straight away. But some days she’s like that. Her voice has returned, her bowels seem to be a lot better now. The things that we notice was her colour seems to be returning gradually, she doesn’t have that translucent skin any more. Her nappies are quite normal, in fact, and now she’s learning new skills. She lost the ability to count, she lost the ability to recognise colours. So in other words her short-term memory, sometimes her long-term memory about words she should have known like shoes and so on, disappeared. But she’s re-learned how to count, not as well as she did before she fell ill. It seems as though obviously whatever it was, was what they described as relatively mild to us was a massive, massive change and of course we don’t know what damage has been done. We don’t know if it’s permanent or temporary.
The statistic on the NHS’s own leaflet says less than one in one million children could get some kind of encephalopathy. Well, sadly our daughter is this one in one million or less than one in one million, I believe. And indeed you know, the doctor that’s treating us says that he also believes that this is a possibility now.
Talks about their difficulty in getting the doctors to explain the reasons for his daughter's...
We saw the man's boss and he just basically poo poo'ed the whole thing, 'Nonsense, this never happens and the MMR's perfectly safe.' So we were back to square one in a way, and because he'd obviously passed this on to our neurologist that we were seeing, the neurologist then said, 'Apparently it isn't what I thought it was.' And so again we were being gently stonewalled again, and whenever we've mentioned the word autistic it's like we've sworn the most obscene imprecation known to man.
So I now say well symptoms that are like symptoms on the autistic spectrum but I know that MMR doesn't cause autism. I have to add that rider every time I talk about her symptoms. It's quite clear that she isn't congenitally autistic in terms of that it was something that she was born with but nonetheless, whatever happened to her has caused symptoms that are like symptoms on the autistic spectrum. And there is no doubt about that I am absolutely convinced, if this is a natural occurrence that some weakness in her make up so be it. If it is something else that's caused it so be it. But something overnight caused her to have regressive behavioural changes, disengaged behaviour that can only be described as similar to autistic symptoms.
One couple explained that two days after their 7-year-old son had his MMR vaccine when he was thirteen months old, he developed a temperature, skin eruptions, a hacking cough and lost his appetite. After two weeks he continued to have little appetite, became socially withdrawn and started showing other symptoms of autism, and he was later diagnosed with onset regressive autism. They also said that they had noticed some changes in their older son's behaviour when he was thirteen months old that remain today. He has not been diagnosed with autism but he has a tendency to be literal about things and to struggle sometimes in social situations and understand why other children do what they do.
Describe the changes in their son from the time that he had the MMR vaccine.
Father: The point is as well
Mother: [our middle son], well if I can just finish the progression of what happened, so' he wasn't well. We noticed very quickly after that, that he wasn't eating properly. Now this is a child who'd eaten virtually everything we gave him, had a very good appetite and was actually quite forward because he was trying to feed himself. And even our unvaccinated baby hasn't quite got to that stage.
Father: [our middle son] was feeding himself at nine months, more or less.
Mother: Nine months, our second child was trying to spoon feed himself. That stopped and all, this child wanted was bottles, milk, milk, milk, want milk. We didn't worry initially because we thought well he's not been well. That's quite understandable that he's at the moment off his food. But the thing was he went off his food and stayed off his food. And from then on he never ate normally again. His diet became extremely restrictive, which is a very, very common feature of autism, very common indeed. And he would really hardly eat anything. But what he did want was milk by the gallon.
Within two weeks, we had noticed that he'd become very socially withdrawn and again that was a marked departure. This was a baby who had been extremely sociable and he had had very good eye contact. And responded when people walked into the room, he was looking to see where they were, very, very sociable baby. He, he was babbling. He'd got one or two words. Everything was there. Well, and the other noticeable thing was, how keen he was on his older brother, he'd sort of crawl after him and swarm all over him.
Well that stopped. And we started to notice that he was sort of removing himself and he'd be in a different part of the room and he'd have his back to everybody and he'd be sitting and looking at something. We noticed that within the fortnight, within a month we were starting to have worrying conversations with the nursery, he used to go to, suggesting the same thing. They were having real trouble giving him anything to eat and he was avoiding the other children. There were only young infants but he was avoiding them.
Father: It's documented in his books.
Mother: And he was never the same child again. Now that's something you often hear about autism is “Oh well, yes, but it, it sets in, in the second year of life”. And people link it, well I can’t answer for anybody else, but I do know that this set in within a very short space of time after him receiving the MMR vaccine. And I cannot believe that was a natural progression that just wallop happened at that time. I’m sure that vaccine triggered the onset of this autism, absolutely certain and you are as well, aren’t you?
Father: Hmhm, and again when we raised the, the point with the doctors concerned, they’re meant to raise a yellow card with a reaction to a vaccine because we went in and raised the point that he was not right since he’d had the vaccine. There was no yellow card registered and it seems to me and my wife, that reaction was sat on by the doctors.
Explain why they believe the changes in their son's behaviour were triggered by the MMR vaccine.
But that was the point at which he changed and if' I always say when people question this and they're right to question it. But if you did a graph of his development and talking about his, you know, his social development and, and his development in terms of his motor development and everything else, it was steadily going up. In fact a lot of his milestones, he was meeting his milestones. I've had comments that I've listed from the health visitors, 'Bright social baby - six months old,' 'meeting his milestones well - eight months old', 'normal healthy little boy - one year old'. So this is a child that was developing normally and it's been witnessed and attested to and signed up to by health visitors and other professionals who apparently know what they are doing. He's been seen by different health visitors, as well. So this wasn't just one person, there were two or three different health visitors who saw him, all of whom documented that his development was normal.
Now it reaches an apex and then it goes down, and the turning point for that was, that happened in his thirteenth month. To me that is more than coincidental, other people will just have to make their own minds up. And I do realise that there are some people who will say, 'This is coincidence', and 'poor sad parents, they're looking for a peg to hang this on'. But that was our experience and that's why we make that link, it was too coincidental. This isn't something blithely second year of life. Second year of life is a twelve month period. This happened or it started to happened and symptoms were apparent within a very, very small time frame, that's how we make the link.
Last reviewed October 2015.
Last updated October 2015.