What type of vaccine is MMR?

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The MMR vaccine is actually a mix of three different vaccines, one for each of the three conditions the injection offers protection against. All three vaccines are derived from the viruses causing measles, mumps, and rubella, and the vaccine as it is today is defined as a ‘live attenuated virus’.

Live attenuated vaccines (sometimes called live vaccines and sometimes called attenuated vaccines) are made up of a weakened (attenuated) version of the pathogen causing a particular illness. This is a very effective method of vaccination as the attenuated virus elicits a very strong response from the body’s immune system, which is why for about 90% of people one dose of the MMR vaccine is enough to confer strong immunity against measles, mumps, and rubella.

Making the MMR vaccine

The viruses making up the MMR vaccine need to be cultivated in specialised laboratories housing both animal and human cells. Live viruses need these cells to survive and propagate.

The measles and mumps viruses can, for example, be grown in specially treated chicken eggs. Growing them in another species’ cells contributes to their attenuation as the strains therein are adapted to survive in chicken eggs, and are therefore less effective in human cells, making them safer and better suited to their purpose.

The rubella vaccine is generated in a human cell line, these are human cells kept and grown in specially designed incubators that allow them to survive and divide.

The MMR vaccine, as mentioned above, essentially a cocktail of three different vaccines. You may hear the measles component referred to as Attenuvax, the mumps component as Mumpsvax, and the rubella element as Meruvax II.

The MMR vaccine is widely produced by a number of different companies, and as a routine part of many different childhood vaccination programmes (including that of the NHS), it is widely used and distributed. Each company markets the vaccine under a different title, Merck for example designates their product MMR II, while GlaxoSmithKline refer to it as Priorix.

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