What are vaccinations?
More than 200 years ago in the UK it was discovered that deliberate infection with a harmless form of cowpox provided immunity against the dangerous smallpox infection. This established the principal of vaccination, and over time led to the complete eradication of this terrible disease. Nowadays, you can get vaccinated against a number of diseases, including yellow fever, polio, measles, mumps and rubella (German measles).
Children can have BCG (against TB) soon after birth if they're at particular risk. Currently in the UK, at 2, 3 and 4 months old, a combined vaccine is given that combats diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis (whooping cough), polio and Haemophilus influenzae, known as DtaP/IPV/Hib.
At the same time, a separate jab against Meningitis C (Men C) can be given. A child is given the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine at around 13 months. Then between 3 and 5 years childrenare given the booster vaccine DtaP/IPV against diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough and polio, as well as a booster dose of MMR.
Changes are afoot with the introduction of a new vaccine against pneumococcus, which can cause pneumonia, septicaemia or meningitis. This injection will be given at 2 and 4 months. Also, the timing of the Men C vaccine is to change, and will be given at 3 and 4 months, and again at 12 months along with a booster of Hib.
What about the MMR vaccine?
Parents have been put in a difficult situation about whether or not to give their child the MMR jab. Many don't know who to believe and are sceptical about advice from medical authorities. However, a consensus has emerged in favour of the vaccine.
The MMR debate
The MMR vaccine was introduced into the UK in 1988. Ten years later, research by Dr Andrew Wakefield suggested a possible link between the vaccine and autism. Since then immunisation rates against MMR have fallen, and there have been outbreaks of measles. While most cases are mild, it can cause serious complications, such as encephalitis (inflammation of the brain).
In 2006, England saw its first death from measles in 14 years. 95 per cent of children need to receive the MMR vaccine for the immunisation programme to be effective, but take-up rates in the UK are only at 82 per cent.
Mumps is also usually a mild disease, but it can result in serious complications, like meningitis, as well as orchitis in males, which can reduce fertility. Rubella can be dangerous, too, if caught in pregnancy. It can lead to deafness, blindness and heart defects in the unborn baby.
Is MMR safe?
The MMR jab is very effective in preventing all three illnesses. With more than 500 million doses of MMR used in over 90 countries since the early 1970s, the World Health Organisation has firmly come out in favour of the safety record of MMR.
So was Dr Wakefield wrong about the link between MMR and autism? His original report made it clear that the study didn't prove an association between the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine and the syndrome described (autism), and it looked at only 12 children. Since then, large-scale studies have failed to establish a link between the two.
What about single MMR jabs?
It's tempting to think that giving three vaccines in one overloads the body's immune system, but there's no evidence to support this. Single injections have distinct disadvantages, not least the risk of catching measles, mumps or rubella while your child's immunity builds up between injections.
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