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The MMR vaccine

Dr Hamish Black

The MMR vaccine offers protection against three illnesses: measles, mumps and rubella. Here's what you need to know about the MMR vaccine.

man smiling showing his vaccinated arm
man smiling showing his vaccinated arm

Wondering what the MMR vaccine is and whether you or your child need it? Here’s everything you need to know about the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine. 

What is MMR (measles, mumps and rubella)?

Measles, mumps and rubella are contagious illnesses caused by viruses. “They’re all vaccine preventable,” says nib Group Medical Advisor Dr Hamish Black.

About measles

“Measles is highly contagious with moderate rates of mortality from pneumonia, encephalitis [brain inflammation] and subacute sclerosing panencephalitis [a rare progressive brain disease].”

Symptoms of the measles include:

  • A blotchy red rash (appears between days three and seven of the illness)

  • Fever

  • Severe cough

  • Runny nose

  • Red eyes

  • White spots in the mouth

  • Fatigue.

About rubella

“Rubella is not generally a serious illness except for those who are pregnant, because of the high rates of congenital rubella syndrome [when the rubella virus is passed from the mother to the baby],” says Hamish. “Symptoms of CRS can include deafness, cardiac abnormalities and intellectual disabilities.”

Symptoms of rubella (also known as German measles) in adults and children include:

  • A red rash

  • Mild fever

  • Swollen glands

  • Runny nose

  • Headaches

  • Joint pain

  • Sore eyes.

About mumps 

“Mumps is not as serious an illness as measles, but it commonly causes orchitis [inflammation of the testicles] and sometimes encephalitis,” says Hamish. 

While one in three people don’t have any symptoms, they can pass on mumps to others. Mumps symptoms include

  • Fever 

  • Body aches 

  • Headaches 

  • Fatigue 

  • Loss of appetite.

Who needs the vaccine? 

“Anyone born in 1966 or after needs the vaccine,” says Hamish. “Children are offered it for free under the National Immunisation Program at 12 months and 18 months. For those who missed it, it’s offered for free on a catch-up schedule.” 

Some people shouldn’t have the MMR vaccine, including

  • Pregnant women (it’s best to get immunised at least 28 days before becoming pregnant) 

  • People with compromised immune systems, such as those receiving cancer treatments 

  • People who have had anaphylaxis following a previous MMR dose (rare).

How does the vaccine work? 

MMR vaccines contain small, weakened doses of the live measles, mumps and rubella viruses. Your immune system responds to the vaccine by creating antibodies against the viruses. This helps your body make antibodies quickly if you’re exposed to these viruses in the future, which prevents the illnesses from developing. 

While some people experience mild symptoms such as a rash, fever, swollen glands and joint pain after receiving the vaccine, they’re not infectious and generally resolve after a day or two.  

Types of MMR vaccine 

There are two types of MMR vaccines and two types of MMRV vaccines (which also contain a vaccine against varicella, also known as chickenpox). The vaccines all work in the same way. You can find out more in the Australian Immunisation Handbook or by asking your GP.  

When to get the MMR vaccine 

Children receive their first dose of MMR vaccine at 12 months of age (without the varicella vaccine because it could increase their risk of febrile convulsions). At 18 months, children get their second dose of MMR (or MMRV, which is safe by this age) to ensure they’re fully protected against these illnesses. 

Anyone who was born in 1966 or later and hasn’t been immunised against measles, mumps and rubella should get two doses of the vaccine at least one month apart. 

If you fall into one of the categories of people who shouldn’t get the MMR vaccine or you’re otherwise unsure whether it’s right for you, talk to your doctor. 

Do you need a booster? 

One dose of the MMR vaccine is 95% effective against measles, 78% against mumps and 99% against rubella. The second dose increases protection to 99% against measles and rubella, and 88% against mumps. 

Once you’ve had two doses, you’re considered protected for life and you won’t need any boosters. 

Please note: The tips throughout this article serve as broad information and should not replace any advice you have been given by your medical practitioner.  

Dr Hamish Black

Dr Hamish Black

Dr Hamish Black

Dr Hamish Black has been a medical practitioner for more than 25 years. In addition to his role as nib group medical advisor, he still spends two days a week practising as a GP. He has spent many years working in emergency departments and in rural Australia, including a stint with the Royal Flying Doctor Service. Hamish also loves karaoke and dancing (though not that well at either, he says!), with Play that Funky Music by Wild Cherry being his karaoke favourite.