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What Are the Risks and Benefits of MMR for Adults?

Can you prevent COVID-19 with a shot of MMR for adults? A new study will help answer this question, but we don't yet know.
What Are the Risks and Benefits of MMR for Adults?
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Researchers are working to develop an effective, safe vaccine for COVID-19, but we are still months away from that goal. In the meantime, are there any other immunizations that could help? One reader wonders about the MMR vaccine commonly administered to children. It protects youngsters against infection with measles, German measles (rubella) and mumps. Could MMR for adults offer some protection from COVID-19?

Could MMR for Adults Cut Risk of COVID-19?

Q. Will getting the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine as an adult help protect me from COVID-19? Are there any reasons not to get this shot? I had mumps and German measles as a youngster. I am now 70 years young.

A. People like you who are over 65 are at greater risk of serious complications from the coronavirus. We understand your desire for protection, but it isn’t yet clear whether getting an MMR shot will help.

There is a hypothesis that the MMR vaccine might help reduce the chance that young children would get seriously ill from COVID-19 (Human Vaccines & Immunotherapeutics, June 5, 2020). Presumably these shots increase interferons and activate natural killer cells that could help resist infection with SARS-CoV-2. No one knows, however, if adults will get any protection.

To test this plausible idea, researchers at Washington University in St. Louis are coordinating an international placebo-controlled trial. They are recruiting health care workers as volunteers to test whether the MMR vaccine can protect against COVID-19. Hopefully, they would observe less severe infections among people who got the shot.

As the scientists point out, 

“This will save time and resources in that MMR vaccine is readily available, inexpensive, very safe FDA-approved and easy to administer, which could result in sparing some of the morbidity and mortality associated with SARS-CoV-2 infection.”

If you learn about a clinical trial of MMR for adults, you might want to volunteer. Until there are more data, however, we would not recommend that you request this shot. Having lots of grown-ups using MMR vaccine with unknown benefits against COVID-19 could lead to shortages. That might leave children unprotected from measles, mumps or German measles. 

Are There Risks from the Vaccine?

Because the MMR vaccine is designed for use in children, scientists have done few studies of its safety in adults. However, researchers analyzed the Vaccine Adverse Effects Reporting System (VAERS) from 2003 to 2013 (Clinical Infectious Diseases, May 15, 2015). They found fever, rash, pain and joint pain are potential consequences of MMR for adults. 

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies. .
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Citations
  • Anbarasu A et al, "Vaccine repurposing approach for preventing COVID 19: can MMR vaccines reduce morbidity and mortality?" Human Vaccines & Immunotherapeutics, June 5, 2020. DOI: 10.1080/21645515.2020.1773141 Abstract
  • Sukumaran L et al, "Adverse Events Following Measles, Mumps, and Rubella Vaccine in Adults Reported to the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS), 2003-2013." Clinical Infectious Diseases, May 15, 2015. DOI: 10.1093/cid/civ061
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