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Measles, Mumps, Rubella: Why Vaccination and Checking Immunity Matters

Highlighting the Importance of Vaccines and Immunity Tests in Combating Measles, Mumps, and Rubella
July 19, 2023
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Vaccinations are modern science's most potent weapons against diseases that were once rampant and often fatal. Today, we will be delving into the Measles, Mumps, and Rubella (MMR) vaccine — a trivalent vaccine (protects against three diseases) that has had a significant impact on global public health.

Measles, Mumps, and Rubella: A Brief Overview

Before discussing the MMR vaccine, let's understand what measles, mumps, and rubella are and why they're important to prevent.

Measles: A highly contagious disease caused by the measles virus, it usually presents symptoms like high fever, cough, runny nose, inflamed eyes, and a rash. The illness can lead to severe complications, such as pneumonia, encephalitis, and death.

Mumps: Also highly contagious, mumps is marked by swollen salivary glands causing puffy cheeks and a swollen jaw. It can lead to meningitis, hearing loss, and in rare cases, fertility issues in males.

Rubella (German Measles): Though typically mild in children, rubella can have serious consequences when contracted by pregnant women, causing birth defects or fetal death. Symptoms include fever, sore throat, rash, headache, and eye irritation.

The MMR Vaccine

Developed in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the MMR vaccine provides immunity to measles, mumps, and rubella. By introducing weakened forms of the viruses into the body, it stimulates the immune system to produce an immune response. This response, including the production of antibodies, "remembers" the viruses, allowing it to fight off the diseases more effectively if exposed in the future.

The MMR vaccine is typically given in two doses. The first is usually administered between 12-15 months of age, with the second given between 4-6 years. Both doses are necessary to ensure 97% effectiveness against measles and mumps and 97% effectiveness against rubella.

Measles, Mumps, Rubella (MMR)

Safety and Efficacy

The MMR vaccine is considered both safe and effective. Most people who get the vaccine will not get these diseases. Even if they do catch them, the symptoms are usually less severe than they would be without the vaccine, and recovery is faster.

Common mild side effects include fever, mild rash, and swelling of the glands in the cheeks or neck. Serious side effects are rare but may include a severe allergic reaction, seizures, low platelet count, or other serious conditions.

The vaccine's benefits far outweigh the rare potential risks, given the severity of measles, mumps, and rubella.

Administering the MMR Vaccine: Timing and Doses

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends a two-dose schedule for the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine. The first dose is usually given between 12 to 15 months of age, and the second dose is typically administered between 4 to 6 years of age before a child enters kindergarten or first grade. However, it can be given earlier as long as it's at least 28 days after the first dose.

MMRV Vaccine: An Alternative for Protection

For protection against chickenpox in addition to measles, mumps, and rubella, a combination vaccine known as MMRV is available. This vaccine includes varicella, the vaccine for chickenpox, alongside the MMR components. The MMRV vaccine, like the MMR vaccine, is a live virus vaccine, meaning it uses weakened versions of the viruses to stimulate an immune response.

Potential Side Effects and Allergic Reactions

Like all vaccines, the MMR and MMRV vaccines can have side effects. Most people will have only mild side effects, like a low-grade fever or mild rash. However, severe allergic reactions can occur, although they are rare. The MMR vaccine may contain trace amounts of neomycin and gelatin, which could trigger allergic reactions in some individuals.

Safety and Effectiveness of the MMR Vaccine

The MMR vaccine is one of the most studied medical interventions in history. It has been licensed by the FDA and has continuously met rigorous safety standards. Research conducted by various institutions, including the CDC, confirms the vaccine's safety and effectiveness in protecting against measles, mumps, and rubella viruses.

Symptoms and Complications of Measles, Mumps, and Rubella

Measles virus infection can cause symptoms ranging from a runny nose and rash to severe complications like brain damage and deafness. Mumps virus can lead to complications such as meningitis and swelling of the testicles in males. Rubella, also known as German measles, is generally mild in children and adults but can cause serious birth defects if a pregnant woman becomes infected.

The Role of Antibodies and the Immune Response

Following vaccination, the immune system generates antibodies against the measles, mumps, and rubella viruses. These antibodies, proteins in our blood, serve as a crucial line of defense against these infectious diseases. In the event of future exposure to viruses, these antibodies help the immune system to respond more rapidly and effectively.

Vaccination in Adolescents and Older Children

While the first dose of the MMR vaccine is typically given in infancy, older children and adolescents, who have not previously been vaccinated or have not received the second dose of the MMR vaccine should get vaccinated. Vaccination is crucial to prevent these diseases and their potential complications.

Impact on Public Health

The introduction of the MMR vaccine has significantly reduced the incidence of measles, mumps, and rubella worldwide. In regions with high vaccination coverage, these diseases have almost been eliminated. However, in areas where vaccination rates have dropped, outbreaks have occurred, emphasizing the importance of maintaining high vaccination coverage.

Herd Immunity and the MMR Vaccine

One of the key benefits of widespread MMR vaccination is the achievement of 'herd immunity.' When a high percentage of the population is vaccinated, it becomes difficult for the virus to spread, thereby providing protection to unvaccinated individuals, including those who can't receive the vaccine due to medical conditions or age.

The MMR Vaccine and COVID-19

In the era of COVID-19, vaccinations, including MMR, are crucial. Many healthcare systems strained by the pandemic might not be able to cope with an outbreak of measles, mumps, or rubella, further emphasizing the importance of MMR vaccinations.

Understanding Immunity: Testing for Titers and Protection

In the context of vaccinations, a key aspect that helps us understand the immunity acquired is the measurement of antibody levels, also known as 'titers.' This measurement offers an indication of the body's immune response post-vaccination.

What are Titers?

Titers refer to the concentration of antibodies in the blood. When we are vaccinated or infected by a disease, our immune system produces these antibodies as a defense mechanism. In the case of the MMR vaccine, these antibodies are specifically targeted to fight against the measles, mumps, and rubella viruses.

Testing for Titers

Titer tests, or serology tests, are blood tests that measure the presence and amount (concentration) of antibodies against these viruses. The presence of specific antibodies in the blood typically indicates that the body has been exposed to the virus and has developed an immune response, either through vaccination or previous infection.

In practice, an MMR titer test would involve taking a blood sample that is then analyzed in a laboratory. The results can confirm immunity or susceptibility to the viruses. These tests are particularly useful for individuals who lack documentation of vaccination, healthcare workers, or those planning to become pregnant to ensure they are immune to rubella.

Titers and Protection

A positive titer test result indicates that the person has sufficient antibodies in their blood to combat the infection, suggesting immunity to the disease. However, it's important to understand that the exact level of antibodies required to confer immunity can vary among individuals.

For the MMR vaccine, a certain threshold (often set by national health authorities or scientific research) of antibodies against measles, mumps, and rubella in the blood usually signifies protection. If the titer is below this level, a booster vaccination may be recommended.

However, the immune system is complex, and antibody levels are just one aspect of immunity. The immune system also involves 'memory cells', which can remember how to fight the virus even if antibody levels decrease over time. This cellular immunity plays a crucial role in protecting against diseases but is harder to measure than antibodies.

To test for immune protection against measles, mumps, and rubella, healthcare providers often rely on serological tests, which detect the presence of specific antibodies in the blood. Here are the lab tests typically used:

  1. Measles Antibody Test (IgG): This test checks for measles-specific immunoglobulin G (IgG) antibodies, which are produced by the immune system in response to a measles infection or after receiving the measles vaccine. If these antibodies are present, it generally means the person has immunity to measles, either from vaccination or past infection.
  2. Mumps Antibody Test (IgG): Similar to the measles antibody test, the mumps IgG test checks for antibodies specific to the mumps virus. A positive result signifies immunity to mumps.
  3. Rubella Antibody Test (IgG): This test measures rubella-specific IgG antibodies. A positive result indicates immunity to rubella, again either from vaccination or past infection. This test is often performed as part of prenatal care, as rubella can cause serious complications during pregnancy.

It's important to note that these tests generally can't distinguish between antibodies produced in response to a vaccine and those produced in response to an infection.

In some cases, the IgM Antibody Test can also be used for measles, mumps, and rubella. These tests detect immunoglobulin M (IgM) antibodies, which are typically the first antibodies the body produces in response to an infection. A positive IgM test can indicate a recent or current infection with measles, mumps, or rubella.

If these tests show low antibody levels, or if the individual is at high risk of infection (like healthcare workers or international travelers), a booster dose of the MMR vaccine may be recommended.

However, keep in mind that immunity is more complex than just antibody levels. As such, antibody tests only provide part of the picture, and maintaining the recommended vaccination schedule is critical to ensure optimal protection against these diseases.

The Importance of Testing

The primary goal of these lab tests is to assess immunity to measles, mumps, and rubella. In specific situations, understanding a person's immunity status is crucial.

Healthcare Workers: Due to the nature of their work, healthcare professionals are at a higher risk of exposure to infectious diseases, including measles, mumps, and rubella. Verifying their immunity is essential to prevent the spread of these diseases in healthcare settings, particularly to patients with weakened immune systems.

Pregnancy and Planning for Pregnancy: Rubella, while typically mild in most people, can cause severe complications when contracted by pregnant women, including birth defects or miscarriage. Women planning to become pregnant are often tested for rubella immunity.

International Travel: Some parts of the world have higher rates of measles, mumps, and rubella than others. People planning to travel internationally may be tested for immunity, particularly if they're traveling to areas with ongoing outbreaks.

Immunocompromised Individuals: For those with compromised immune systems, it's essential to understand their immunity status as they're at a higher risk for severe complications if they contract these diseases.

Post-exposure Testing: After exposure to someone with measles, mumps, or rubella, testing can help determine whether a person is at risk of developing the disease.

Interpreting Results

The interpretation of these lab tests is usually straightforward. If IgG antibodies are detected, this typically indicates immunity to the specific disease. If no antibodies are detected, this could mean the person is susceptible to the disease. However, false negatives and positives can occur, and the test results should always be interpreted in the context of the person's health status, history of vaccination, and possible exposure to the virus.

A positive IgM test indicates a recent or current infection, although false positives can occur. IgM tests are not typically used to confirm immunity from vaccination as IgM antibodies decline and disappear a few weeks or months after infection or vaccination.

It's important to remember that the immune response is complex and involves more than just antibody levels. For example, even if antibody levels decrease over time, memory cells can still provide protection by quickly producing antibodies if the person is exposed to the virus again.


The safeguarding power of laboratory testing for measles, mumps, and rubella immunity cannot be denied. It provides invaluable insights into an individual's immune status. However, its role is complementary, and it should not overshadow the critical importance of adhering to the recommended vaccination schedule. The efficacy of the MMR vaccine as a preventative measure against these diseases remains unparalleled.

If questions or concerns arise about your immunity to these diseases or about the MMR vaccine, your first port of call should be your healthcare provider. They are well-equipped to provide accurate information tailored to your personal health history and circumstances.

Finally, let's not forget the collective responsibility we share in combating these infectious diseases. The MMR vaccine serves as a critical weapon in our arsenal against measles, mumps, and rubella. Timely vaccination of our children not only shields them from these diseases but also contributes significantly to the larger public health objective of disease control and eradication. Remember, each administered MMR vaccine strengthens our communal defense against these persistent adversaries.

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