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WHO Defends Safety of Measles Vaccine - 2002-02-08

The World Health Organization said Friday that measles vaccines are safe and parents should continue to have their children immunized against the disease. The WHO said fears in Britain about the safety of measles vaccines are unfounded.

The World Health Organization said claims that the combined vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella could cause autism or bowel disorders in some children are without scientific merit.

The claim was made in a British scientific journal in 1998. Since then, WHO said some British parents have refused to have their children vaccinated against these diseases.

WHO Medical Officer, John Clemens, predicted more children will get measles, mumps and rubella as coverage continues to fall in Britain. "That will, of course, expose more children to the possibility of complications and death," he said. "This has not been seen in other countries. We are naturally watching events, in particular, in developing countries where measles is not a mere inconvenience. It causes something like 800,000 deaths a year."

At least 36 children in Britain who were not immunized against measles reportedly came down with the disease this week.

Over the past five years, Dr. Clemens said the safety of vaccines has been called into question by anti-vaccine lobbies. He said before these vaccines became available, millions of children died from measles in developing countries. Dr. Clemens said if people lose confidence in the vaccinations, it could lead to a health disaster. "Clearly, when measles is such a potentially damaging disease in developing countries, it would be a catastrophe if those countries lost confidence in the vaccine," he said.

Dr. Clemens said the World Health Organization does not believe it would be safer to give mumps, measles and rubella vaccines separately rather than as a single dose. He said the vaccines would have to be administered a month apart. That means a child would not be fully protected until after a delay of two unnecessary months.