Question: Is it true that some kids get measles after getting the MMR shot?
Dr. LaSalle: First, we have to look at the difference between “killed” or “inactivated” vaccines and “live-attenuated” vaccines.
Killed vaccines are those in which the ability of the virus or bacteria to cause an infection is completely removed. The virus or bacterium is “inactivated”. These are basically dead pathogens, but the body still recognizes them as foreign and can mount a safe and effective immune response. There is no “live” virus or bacteria present, so they cannot cause an infection. Other vaccines don’t use a full virus or bacteria but only a piece of the pathogen (like a surface protein) that, by itself, could not cause infection but that the body will also recognize as foreign and to which it will develop an antibody response.
A “live-attenuated” vaccine is one in which a live virus or bacteria is present but in a weakened form. It cannot cause illness in someone with a functioning immune system. However, people who have a suppressed immune system (because of an immune deficiency or because of treatments with immune suppressing medications or chemotherapy, for example), could develop illness from these weakened vaccines. These vaccines, like MMR and the Chicken Pox vaccine (called Varicella), are NOT recommended for people with weakened immune systems.
The problem is that, rarely, people have a weakened immune system and we don’t know it. For example, a child could be in the early stages of a leukemia that hasn’t yet had symptoms or been diagnosed. We wouldn’t know to avoid live-attenuated vaccines in these patients and they could be at risk of coming down with the illness we were trying to protect against. However, in reality, this happens very infrequently. With usual precautions taken, these vaccines are extremely safe.
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