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Do you think the MMR vaccine is scarier than the diseases it protects against? Think again.

Vaccine refusal is on the rise, and parents decide against immunizing their children for a wide variety of reasons. Common reasons are concerns that vaccines are not safe and can lead to dangerous side effects, the belief that vaccines are not very effective, and a general mistrust of government and pharmaceutical companies. The belief that (some) vaccine preventable diseases are simply not that dangerous combined with a conviction that a child is unlikely to catch a disease in the first place are other very important reasons to refuse childhood vaccines. 

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The MMR vaccine that protects against measles, mumps, and rubella has been one of the most controversial shots in circulation ever since the infamous and now-discredited study that linked the vaccine to autism appeared in 1998.

Many parents who do decide to give consent for other vaccines feel uncomfortable with the idea of having the MMR administered. 

Would you say no to the MMR vaccine for your children? Media coverage of non-vaccination certainly makes it easy to start doubting the safety of vaccines, and this vaccine in particular. If we're perfectly honest, we have to admit that immunizations do, sometimes, lead to unpleasant and even dangerous side effects. That very fact may be quite enough to convince yourself that the MMR is not worth it, if you also think that measles, mumps, and rubella aren't very dangerous diseases. Are they really that benign, though? Let's take a look. 

Measles

A common childhood illness not too long ago, many adults remember having measles as children and surviving without any long-term consequences. Indeed, some see getting measles as positive, and may even contemplate "measles parties" that ensure a larger number of children are infected. By intentionally infecting a child, parents make sure they go through measles before adolescence, and receive life-long immunity after the virus runs its course. 

How does measles work? It's a virus from the paramyxovirus family that's spread through infected particles from the nose, mouth or throat. It has a symptom-free incubation period of 10 to 14 days. The first symptoms — a mild fever, a dry cough, a sore throat, a runny nose, and conjuctivitis — are relatively non-specific and parents may initially suspect their child has a common cold or the flu. A few days later, the fever suddenly shoots up. A blotchy skin rash appears, starting with the face and radiating downwards. Koplik's spots, little white spots that appear on the inside of the cheeks, are also characteristic. The whole process is usually over within two to three weeks. 

Though measles is definitely unpleasant, few think of it as extremely dangerous.

And yet... the World Health Organization estimates that a shocking 122,000 people across the globe — mainly kids under the age of five — died from measles in 2012, a figure that rose to 145,700 in 2013. 

Its complications explain why:

  • Encephalitis is an inflammation of the brain that can lead to vomiting, convulsions, coma, and death. Around one in a thousand people infected with measles develop encepalitis, either while they have the virus, or weeks or months later. 
  • Respiratory infections like pneumonia, bronchitis, laryngitis and croup.
  • Severe diarrhea and the dehydration that accompanies it.
  • Blindness
  • Ear infections
  • A low platelet count
  • In pregnant women, pregnancy loss, low birth-weight babies, and preterm labor

See Also: Why Would Parents Reject Vaccines?

Malnourished children and those with weakened immune systems (due to HIV, for instance) are most at risk of complications. In vulnerable populations, up to 10 percent of those who get measles don't make it out alive. People living in developed western nations with access to quality healthcare and nutrition certainly have less to worry about. It is, however, wise to remember that there is no specific treatment for measles and that pneumonia and encephalitis are scary wherever a person happens to live.

Mumps And Rubella

Mumps

The World Health Organization describes mumps as "mostly a mild childhood disease". Far less frightening than measles, some who catch mumps have either no symptoms or extremely mild ones. Mumps is most common among pre-pubescent children. It's caused by the mumps virus and spread through saliva, including infected droplets a patient may cough or sneeze out. 

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For those who do get symptoms, swollen and painful salivary glands is the most obvious sign.

This can occur on one or both sides and gives the infected person the characteristic puffed-up look. A fever, pain while swallowing, a headache, weakness, fatigue, and loss of appetite are other frequently-seen symptoms. Mumps has an incubation period of two to three weeks. Once symptoms appear, the disease generally runs its course within a week. 

Mumps, too, can be accompanied by unpleasant complications, however, especially for those are infected past-puberty. These complications include:

  • A swollen testicle, or orchitis. This generally happens four to eight days after the salivary glands begin to swell up. A little under half of post-puberty boys and men who catch mumps will see a reduction in the size of their testicles, while one in 10 will see a drop in sperm count. It's not generally big enough to cause infertility though.
  • Post-puberty girls and women who get mumps can experience something similar, a swelling of the ovaries. Also called oophoritis, this leads to pelvic pain, fever, and vomiting. Fortunately, most have no long-term consequences.
  • Viral meningitis is another possible complication. Note that this is nowhere near as serious as the viral meningitis that can be fatal, but it can still be scary. 
  • One in 20 mumps cases lead to acute pancreatitis, an inflammation of the pancreas. This comes with a host of symptoms on top of normal mumps symptoms, including diarrhea and abdominal tenderness. It's not usually serious but patients may still need to be hospitalized. 
  • In rare cases, mumps can also lead to encephalitis and temporary hearing loss. The previous belief that mumps can lead to miscarriage now appears incorrect, but pregnant women should be careful to avoid contact with the disease just in case. 

Rubella

Rubella is another virus that is generally mild in children. Symptoms include a pink-red, spotty skin rash, a fever, cold or flu like symptoms like joint pain, a runny nose and a cough, and swollen glands in the head and neck. Symptoms appear a few weeks after exposure, with patients being most contagious between one to five days after the rash appears. 

Rubella is still a serious concern, however, because it can lead to miscarriage or stillbirth in pregnant women, as well as to something called Congenital Rubella Syndrome. A grand total of 90 percent of infected pregnant mothers pass rubella onto their unborn babies. 

See Also: Vaccines: How They Are Made And How They Work

Congenital Rubella Syndrome (CRS) can cause heart defects, eye and hearing problems, autism (yes, unlike the MMR!), type 1 diabetes and thyroid disorders. Four babies in every 1000 were born with CRS before the introduction of the MMR vaccine. Rubella is a great example of how vaccination programs benefit the whole community as well as the individuals being vaccinated. The WHO notes that "a single dose gives more than 95 percent long-lasting immunity, which is similar to that induced by natural infection". Those who aren't concerned about the symptoms of rubella themselves may agree that vaccinating their children may save their grand children's lives one day. 

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