Vaccines and the Risk of Multiple Sclerosis

Get Your Shots: They Won't Cause MS

Vaccines Do Not Cause MS
Vaccines Do Not Cause MS. Universal Images Group/Getty Images

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is an autoimmune disorder in which certain components of the immune system mistakenly attack the protective sheath, called myelin, around the cells in the central nervous system. Because the disease involves the immune system, it makes sense to wonder if there could be any connection between MS and vaccines, which also work with the immune system to help prevent serious diseases and conditions.

In other words, you may be concerned that vaccinations could somehow increase the risk of developing MS—especially if you're a parent.

The bottom line is, there's plenty of scientific evidence to show that there's no link between vaccines and MS. For instance, for a study published in JAMA Neurology in 2014an MS specialist reviewed the medical records of nearly 800 people from southern California who had been diagnosed with a demyelinating disorder of the brain or spinal cord between 2008 to 2011 and found no connection between vaccines and MS or related disorders.

Of course, not every single vaccine has been studied directly as a potential cause of increased risk of MS. It is safe to say, however, that the very real risk of developing a disease such as rubella or smallpox from not being vaccinated is a bigger concern than an unproven and highly unlikely increased risk of MS from getting the recommended inoculations.

If I Already Have MS, Will a Shot Cause a Relapse?

In a word, no. However, there are a couple of things to be aware of if you have MS and are due for a vaccine. If you've recently had a relapse, you should hold off on getting your shot until the relapse is completely over and your symptoms are improving—usually after four to six weeks, according to the Immunization Panel of the Multiple Sclerosis (MS) Council for Clinical Practice.

Live attenuated vaccines also could be a concern depending on your medical history—whether you've had chicken pox or not, for example. Such vaccines also may not be safe if you take any medications known to suppress the immune system, or if you've been on such a drug in the recent past. Examples include Novantrone (mitoxantrone); Cytoxan (cyclophosphamide); Imuran (azathioprine); Lemtrada (alemtuzumab); and methotrexate. Note that the disease-modifying medications for MS don't affect the immune system, so if you take CopaxoneRebifAvonex, or Betaseron, you shouldn't need to delay being vaccinated.

Don't put off or skip getting a flu shot, either. It's considered safe in people with MS. The pneumococcal vaccine is also specifically recommended for people who have limited mobility or respiratory problems, which can be a symptom of MS.

I Have MS. Is It OK to Vaccinate My Child?

MS does have a genetic component: A child who has a parent or sibling with MS is at a higher risk than other kids of developing the disorder. If either you or your child's other biological parent has MS, however, this is not a reason to not vaccinate him. Remember, the danger of developing the diseases that vaccines prevent is far too great, and while researchers are still working to pinpoint the exact causes of MS, they do know that a combination of genetic and environmental factors are likely to blame—not life-saving inoculations.

Sources:

Farex MF, Correale J. "Yellow Fever Vaccination and Increased Relapse Rate in Travelers with Multiple Sclerosis. Arch Neurol. 2011 Oct;68(10):1267-71.

Langer-Gould A et al. "Vaccine and the Risk of Multiple Sclerosis and Other Central Nervous System Demyelinating Diseases. JAMA Neurol. 2014 Dec;71(12):1506-13.

National Multiple Sclerosis Society. "What Causes MS?"

Rutschmann OT, McCrory DC, Matchar DB.; Immunization Panel of the Multiple Sclerosis Council for Clinical Practice Guidelines. "Immunization and MS: A Summary of Published Evidence and Recommendations." Neurology. 2002 Dec 24;59(12):1837-43.

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