Immunization Issues

Measles Parties

Updated: March 31, 2004

Measles parties were common during the fifties and sixties. However, in the past few years, allegations of a link between the MMR (measles-mumps-rubella) vaccine and autism have put these parties in vogue again, mainly in the United Kingdom1.

In 2001, the Institute of Medicine’s (IOM) Committee on Immunization Safety Review rejected a causal relationship between the MMR vaccine and autism2. Later studies have supported that rejection3.

Measles is one of the most infectious diseases in the world—most communicable just before the appearance of its distinctive rash. Children with measles experience fever, followed by cough and runny nose. Then a rash appears, covering their bodies in a matter of days.

Prior to licensure of the first measles vaccine in 1963, virtually every person in the U.S. got the measles by age 20—between 3 and 4 million cases occurred every year. Many developed complications – some with permanent damage - and some died.

Measles causes middle ear infections in nearly one out of every 10 children who get it. As many as one out of 20 children with measles gets pneumonia, and about one child in every 1,000 who get measles will develop encephalitis (an inflammation of the brain that can lead to convulsions, and can leave a child deaf or mentally retarded). For every 1,000 children who get measles, one or two will die from it. Measles can also cause a pregnant woman to have a miscarriage, give birth prematurely, or have a low-birth-weight baby.4

Since the vaccine became available, there has been a 99% reduction in the incidence of measles. The last measles outbreak in the U.S. occurred in 1989-1991 with 55,000 cases; 11,000 were hospitalized, mostly normal children. One hundred thirty two died.

The MMR vaccine has a few known side effects. One child in every 10 will have a fever within a week of receiving the vaccine. One in every 20 will develop a mild rash. However, none of these are serious conditions requiring a medical visit.

People with serious allergies to gelatin or any of the other components of the vaccine should not receive the MMR vaccine. Also, women who are pregnant or trying to conceive should not receive the vaccine. Moreover, women should not become pregnant within 28 days after immunization with MMR.

Only children with severe immunodeficiency should not receive the vaccine. HIV-infected persons who have no symptoms of AIDS can and should be vaccinated.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), nearly 800,000 persons died of measles in developing countries in 2001.

Some cases from the economically developing world are introduced to the U.S. from time to time. The measles virus travelers bring into the U.S. sometimes causes outbreaks. However, because of the high immunization rates in most of the U.S., these outbreaks generally are small. But if vaccinations against measles were stopped, each year about 2.7 million people would die of measles worldwide.

Risks of Measles vs. Risks of the Measles Vaccine

Risks of Measles Parties

  • Measles is a serious disease caused by a highly contagious virus, which spreads when people touch or breathe in infectious droplets passed by coughing and sneezing.
  • Measles begins with fever followed by cough, runny nose, and conjunctivitis (“pink eye”).
  • Infection of the middle ear, pneumonia, croup, and diarrhea are common complications.
  • Measles encephalitis (an infection of the brain) occurs in 1 per 1,000 cases of natural measles, frequently resulting in permanent brain damage in survivors.
  • Approximately 5% of children (5 out of 100) with measles will develop pneumonia.
  • One to two of every 1,000 children who get measles in the United States die from the disease.
  • Death is more common in infants, in malnourished children, and among immunocompromised persons, including those with leukemia and HIV infection.

Risks of the Vaccine

  • MMR is an attenuated (weakened) live virus vaccine. It prevents measles, mumps and rubella.
  • Nearly all children who get the MMR vaccine (more than 80%) will have no side effects.
  • Most children who have a side effect will have only a mild reaction, such as soreness, redness or swelling where the shot was given, mild rash, mild to moderate fever, swelling of the lymph glands, and temporary pain, stiffness, or temporary swelling in the joints.
  • In about 5% to 15% of children given MMR, a fever in excess of 103 degrees F may occur—usually beginning about 7 to 12 days after they receive the vaccine.
  • About 15% of women who receive MMR will develop acute arthritis or swelling of the joints. This condition is usually very short-lived.
  • In rare cases (about 3 children out of 10,000 given MMR, or 0.03% of recipients) a moderate reaction such as seizure related to high fever may occur.
  • In rare cases (about 1 child out of 30,000 given MMR) develop temporary low platelet count, which can cause bleeding.
  • In extremely rare cases (less than 1 child out of 1,000,000 given MMR), children have a serious reaction, such as lowered consciousness, coma, or hypersensitivity (anaphylaxis)—swelling inside the mouth, difficulty breathing, low blood pressure, and rarely, shock.