Prior to the late 1960’s almost everyone contracted these diseases in childhood, leading to lifelong immunity (but also much suffering from illness and complications).
Measles is the most important of the three and is the most highly infectious virus. All are spread from person to person by droplets from coughing, sneezing and close contact.
There is only one vaccine available which protects against all three.
Measles: Causes a high fever, runny nose, cough, red eyes and a dramatic red rash. About 10% of sufferers go on to develop complications which include pneumonia and ear infections, or more rarely brain inflammation and progressive brain damage.
Mumps: Classic disease involves a fever, tiredness and dramatic swelling of the parotid glands in the face. Complications include brain inflammation which may lead to deafness and testicular inflammation which occasionally causes infertility.
Rubella: Rubella is best known for the consequences to the baby if contracted by the mother during pregnancy. If this occurs the baby may be born with intellectual disability, deafness, blindness and other birth defects. Fortunately, this scenario is now extremely rare as rubella is now uncommon in Australia with high immunisation rates. Women of childbearing age are encouraged to have a blood test prior to falling pregnant to check their immunity and get a booster low.
MMR vaccine contains live modified strains of the three viruses and is given as part of the childhood immunisation program. Two doses give long lasting immunity.
There have been some controversies around MMR vaccine however this has been discarded with large safety trials over many years.The vaccine should not be given during pregnancy or to those with immune suppression.
Those born between 1966 and 1984 in Australia may not be fully immune to all three components of MMR vaccine because of lack of natural immunity AND changes in vaccine components/childhood schedules. Full protection requires two MMR doses, so these individuals are often recommended to have blood tests for immunity and/or an MMR booster before travelling overseas. Booster doses of MMR are very safe and rarely associated with significant side effects.
In many developed and developing countries anti-vaccination campaigns have led to a significant portion of children not being vaccinated (including certain regions of Australia, such as Fremantle). These individuals (and those born between 1966 and 1984) may be particularly susceptible to contracting the disease overseas or from others who have travelled overseas, particularly to Asia, including Bali. As a result, small localised outbreaks still occur in Australia and are treated as a public health emergency to prevent further spread and particularly to newborns who are at highest risk but too young to be vaccinated.
Depending on risk and benefit, the vaccine can be given to babies over 6 months of age (ie if travelling to high risk areas). The 12 & 18 month vaccines then still need to be given as usual. This is because babies do not mount as strong an immune response to the vaccine at younger ages.