Measles and MMR – the risks

Weekend newspapers were full of stories about the recent outbreak of measles, affecting hundreds of children in the Swansea area. The Sunday Times lead story was headlined ‘first death feared in MMR scare’ with 60 children reported to be in hospital with measles. They also expressed the view that there is no risk of harm or autism-like symptoms from the MMR vaccine. Is this true?

The risk of MMR: If one sticks to published science about the safety of the MMR vaccine, which contains three live vaccines – for measles, mumps and rubella (German measles) – the latest 2012 Cochrane systematic review of all published trials concludes “The design and reporting of safety outcomes in MMR vaccine studies, both pre- and post-marketing, are largely inadequate.” This review reports “A significant risk of association with febrile seizures and MMR exposure.” This risk is greatest, they say, in younger children, up to 35 months, and occurs in the first couple of weeks post vaccination. There was also an ‘increased risk of thrombocytopenic purpura’ which is an auto-immune bleeding disease caused by lack of blood platelets. They say that ‘Exposure to the MMR vaccine was unlikely to be associated with autism, asthma, leukaemia, hay fever, type 1 diabetes, gait disturbance, Crohn’s disease, demyelinating diseases, bacterial or viral infections.’ If one includes case reports of adverse reactions there are several relating to brain damage and autism-like symptoms, asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, according to the parents of the children concerned.

There have been two court cases ruling that MMR had caused brain damage in one child, and autism-like symptoms in another, paying out substantial damages. Even if these risks are very rare I think anyone who asserts there is ‘absolutely no risk’ is ill-informed, especially since it is clear that proper safety testing has yet to be done. The vaccine was introduced into the UK in 1988 without adequate safety testing.(1) Not one of the safety trials on the MMR ‘actively’ followed up the vaccinated children for more than six weeks, and most no longer than three weeks.(2) The trials would not have been able to detect either rare, or long-term, side effects of the vaccine, such as autism-like effects which are not easy to test in very young children. In many so-called ‘placebo’ trials with vaccines the placebos have contained other vaccine ingredients such as mercury containing Thimerosol or aluminium rather than inert placebos such as a saline solution, thus potentially disguising side-effects. Proper studies can be done if the funding and political will is there rather than the current atmosphere of blanket denial. As the recent Cochrane Systematic review concludes: “The evidence of adverse events following immunisation with the MMR vaccine cannot be separated from its role in preventing the target diseases.”

The risk of measles: Measles, while it can be extremely unpleasant, is not realistically describable as a life-threatening disease in healthy children. There is about a death every five years in the UK from measles, or the complications of it, in severely immune-compromised children or adults. The last death recorded in a child since 1992 was in 2008 in a child with congenital immunodeficiency. In 2006 a 13-year old boy with an underlying lung condition, who was taking immunosuppressive drugs, also died from the complications of measles. If a child is vitamin A deficient then measles can be life-threatening. In underdeveloped countries, deaths from measles have been virtually eliminated with adequate amounts of vitamin A.

Other options: In 1998, when the MMR was introduced, the single measles vaccine, which did not have this controversy of risk, was withdrawn from the NHS. I think this is a mistake since there may be many parents who are unwilling to consider vaccinating their child with MMR but would for measles alone. The only argument in favour of the triple vaccine is ease (and more profit). A parent should be allowed to make that choice. A single measles vaccination is available privately from One of the reasons for so doing is that mumps is only of significant danger to boys in puberty and rubella (German measles) to girls in puberty. There is a case for vaccinating boys against mumps before puberty, and girls against rubella before puberty, having first tested to see if they have developed natural immunity.

If you do opt for the MMR one study indicates that it is more effective if given later, with the first dose at 15 months of age, not the recommended 12 months, followed by a booster at 3 years. Also, you may wish to insist that your doctor signs the Vaccine Consent Form, which provides you legal cover in the event of an adverse reaction. As with any viral infection high dose vitamin C considerably reduces symptoms. Dr Frederick Klenner first reported this in 1953, when he gave people with measles 1 gram of vitamin C every two hours without a break until symptoms had gone. He also reported rapid relief of symptoms with intramuscular vitamin C, although now this would be given intravenously. I hope, but doubt, the children currently in hospital are being given this.

For those wanting to dig deeper on this read the book ‘Curing the Incurable’ by Dr Thomas Levy. The right dose for a child, according to body weight, is debatable. Generally, one wants to to give the ‘bowel tolerance’ level, that is the level just below that that causes diarrhoea. That might by 500mg every two hours for a younger child. Pure ascorbic acid can be added to drinks for this purpose. Ensuring an optimum intake of nutrients can actually help to reduce risk of disease. For example, studies indicate that children infected with measles have lower levels of vitamin A. Consequently, eating a diet high in vitamin A, rich in fish, and its precursor beta-carotene, rich in green leafy vegetables and yellow-orange coloured fruit and vegetables, may reduce severity of symptoms. Making a carrot and butternut squash soup, for example, would be a good idea. Also, giving vitamin A rich cod-liver oil would provide both vitamin A and omega 3s, which are anti-inflammatory.

To find out more about the pros and cons of vaccines read my Special Report ‘Vaccine Nation’ and watch the excellent award-winning documentary The Greater Good. 1. Jefferson T, Price D, et al. Unintended events following immunization with the MMR: a systematic review. Vaccine 2003; 21: 3954-3960. 2. Wakefield AJ, Montgomery SM. Measles, mumps, rubella vaccine: through a glass darkly. Adverse Drug Reactions and Toxicological Reviews 2000; 19: 265-83.