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Column originally published Apr 25, 2017

Teenager Needs Vaccination, Including Measles

Question: Our seventeen-year-old son is going to university in Nova Scotia this fall. When he was young, I heard that measles vaccine could cause autism in children. I was really scared, and didn’t allow him to receive the second dose of MMR vaccine. He didn’t get most vaccines afterwards because I was worried about the idea of vaccination. I just heard that there is an outbreak of measles in Nova Scotia. I am now terrified. Does he really need the measles vaccine?


The short answer is yes, he needs the measles vaccine.

Measles is a very contagious virus. Before the introduction of measles vaccine in North America in the 1960s, virtually everyone had measles infection, most often when they were very young. Many had serious complications, and some died. At first, scientists thought that one dose of measles vaccine was enough for life-long immunity. During small outbreaks of measles in subsequent decades, they found that a small percentage of children didn’t respond to the vaccine, and some lost their protection after several years. Since 2001, two doses of measles vaccine are recommended for all children.

Most of the time, measles vaccine is given as part of the measles-mumps- rubella-varicella (MMRV) vaccine combination. It protects children from four common viruses at the same time. The first dose is usually given between 12 to 15 months, while the second dose can be given a few months later, or before the child enters elementary school.

You are not the only parents that were scared and misled by the false report of measles vaccine causing autism. The report was published in a reputable scientific journal, then widely publicized by the media. This caused major concern among physicians worldwide. As a result, a number of large scale research studies were launched around the world. These studies proved that there was no relationship between autism and measles vaccination.

Unfortunately, the damage was already done. The erroneous assertion scared many parents like yourself. Some refused the vaccine completely, while others gave one dose instead of two. We have a population of children and young adults that are unprotected or partially protected against measles. The problem is even worse in Europe.

As more young people travel abroad, there is a surge of “imported” measles outbreaks in Canada. They contracted the virus abroad and brought it home. Several years ago, we have two unvaccinated teenagers on PEI with measles infection: one contracted measles while travelling in Europe, then passed the virus to her sister after she returned. With the advent of genetic testing, we were able to identify where the virus came from. The recent outbreaks of measles in Nova Scotia have been traced to travellers also.

If your son has received one dose of measles vaccine, he should get a second dose of MMR in the near future.

You should also consider other important vaccines that he likely has missed. These include a pneumonia vaccine (Prevnar 13) and a meningitis vaccine. Recently, Human Papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine was approved for boys in PEI. This can protect him from genital as well as head and neck cancers. A booster dose of diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis (DTaP) vaccine is also important if he has not received it in recent years.

In PEI, the public health nurses give most of the vaccines to children. They should have a record of the vaccines that he has received. You can check with them to find out which ones he has missed. Updating his vaccination can protect him from all the preventable illnesses and make sure that he stays healthy throughout his university years.