Immunising your child

Why should I immunise my child?

Being immunised (vaccinated) protects your child against catching childhood diseases and other contagious conditions.

Some childhood infectious diseases can have devastating and disabling effects on a child (some of which are permanent), even including death. However, vaccinations give your child immunity to diseases and protect them from suffering from the effects of that disease.

Immunisation is an important part of your child’s health.

Getting vaccinated benefits everyone

Immunisation protects individuals and also the community at large through what is known as ‘herd immunity’, or communal immunity. The more people in a community who are vaccinated against a specific disease, the harder it is for that disease to spread from person to person. So herd immunity stops the spread of infectious diseases, and ultimately this is how infectious diseases become eradicated.

Immunisation rates of about 90 per cent are needed to prevent the spread of most infectious diseases. Immunisation rates in Australia are currently high, with more than 90 per cent of one-year-old, 2-year-old and 5-year-old children in Australia fully immunised. It is important that immunisation remains a priority for Australian children, so that illnesses such as diphtheria, mumps and measles are kept under control.

The members of our community who are most vulnerable to infectious diseases benefit the most from herd immunity. Babies who are still too young to be vaccinated and people with medical problems that prevent them from being vaccinated rely on healthy people to get vaccinated to reduce the chance of vaccine-preventable diseases spreading in the community.

What is in a vaccine?

Vaccines contain a killed or weakened form of an infectious germ (virus or bacterium) or even just a modified version of a toxin (poison) produced by a bacterium. They also contain a type of preservative.

Vaccines are rigorously tested and continuously monitored to ensure their safety and effectiveness. All components of the vaccine (including preservatives and any additives) are safety tested.

How does immunisation work?

Vaccination gives us immunity to infectious diseases without us having to experience the disease or its symptoms. Vaccines work by preparing your immune system to fight disease. They take advantage of the fact that your immune system can ‘remember’ infectious organisms such as viruses and bacteria.

Because the vaccine contains a weakened or killed version of the infectious agent, it won’t make you ill and give you the disease, but it can still stimulate your immune system to respond. This means that if you are exposed to the bacteria or virus in the future, your immune system can respond quickly and protect you from getting sick.

It usually takes your immune system a couple of weeks to respond to vaccination, meaning that you are not protected straight away.

Does vaccination always work?

The vast majority of vaccinated children are protected from catching the illnesses they have been vaccinated against.

A small number of vaccinated people do sometimes become infected with a disease even though they have been vaccinated against it. However, in these cases the severity of the illness is reduced, meaning that the symptoms are fewer and less severe, recovery is faster and the risk of complications is very low.

When to get vaccinated

Childhood vaccinations are given according to the Australian Standard Vaccination Schedule. Vaccinations are provided for free in infancy and early childhood to provide protection from serious infectious diseases from an early age.

Most babies have their first immunisation at birth, and then vaccinations are routinely recommended at 2 months, 4 months, 6 months, 12 months, 18 months, 4 years and 10-15 years.

It is also recommended that some at-risk groups have additional vaccinations.

What are the routine childhood vaccinations?

Routine childhood immunisations provided as part of the National Immunisation Program Schedule include vaccines to prevent the following infections:

  • hepatitis A and B;
  • whooping cough (pertussis);
  • diphtheria;
  • polio;
  • tetanus;
  • rotavirus (a cause of severe gastroenteritis);
  • measles;
  • mumps;
  • rubella (also known as German measles);
  • chickenpox;
  • pneumococcal disease (Pneumococcus bacteria can cause a range of infections, including pneumonia);
  • haemophilus influenzae type B (a cause of serious infections including meningitis);
  • meningococcal C (a cause of meningitis); and
  • human papillomavirus (HPV) – which can cause cervical cancer.

Many of these vaccinations are available as combination vaccines, meaning that your child can receive several vaccines in just one injection.

Some vaccines require several doses to ensure that your child becomes and stays immune to the infection, while other vaccines only need one dose to deliver lasting immunity.

When to delay vaccination

If your child is booked to have an immunisation and becomes unwell, contact your doctor or immunisation provider to find out whether you should delay. Most minor illnesses, such as colds, are not a reason to delay, but if your child has a fever, it may be recommended that you wait until they have recovered.

Are there any side effects associated with immunisation?

The most common vaccine side effects include:

  • redness at the injection site (area where the needle was given);
  • injection site pain and tenderness (the area is sore to touch); and
  • mild fever.

Babies and young children are sometimes unsettled for a day or 2 after having vaccinations. Most vaccine side effects are very mild, get better quickly and can be treated with self-care measures.

Serious reactions to vaccines are rare.

Most doctors recommend that you stay at the doctor’s surgery for about 20 minutes after a vaccination in case your child has an allergic reaction to the vaccine. This is a rare event, but remaining at the doctor’s surgery means that if a reaction does occur, there are medical staff available to help immediately.

How to manage vaccination side effects

If your child has pain or fever following vaccination, you can try using a pain reliever such as paracetamol to relieve their symptoms.

Ensure your baby or child maintains their fluid intake. Other self-care measures for fever include using cool compresses and keeping clothes and blankets to a minimum.

When should you see the doctor after a vaccination?

See your doctor if you are concerned about any symptoms following a vaccination. Call an ambulance if you need urgent medical assistance.

There are rare cases of children having febrile fits following vaccinations. If your child has a very high fever or a seizure, seek immediate medical help.

If you or your child has significant side effects following an immunisation, you should report these to your doctor or the clinic where you were immunised. These effects are recorded in a national surveillance system so that any problems with vaccines can be identified quickly.

Risks of vaccines compared with risks of illness

There is a very small risk of a serious reaction to some vaccines, however most people experience only mild side effects or no side effects at all. You should consider the the risks associated with vaccines compared with the risks of complications of the disease if contracted. For example:

  • Soreness at the injection site is common after having the diphtheria vaccine, but one in every 15 people who catches diphtheria dies from the disease.
  • Hepatitis B vaccine causes mild side effects in about 5 per cent of people, but one in 4 people who are infected in infancy and become chronic carriers of hepatitis B will develop cirrhosis of the liver or liver cancer.
  • Polio vaccine can cause redness at the injection site in about one-third of people and fever in 5 to 10 per cent of those vaccinated, but having polio can result in paralysis.

Your doctor can provide you with further information on the risks of developing a disease compared with having the vaccination.

The National Immunisation Program Schedule

The current version of the National Immunisation Program Schedule includes vaccines for 16 infectious conditions.

All of the vaccines on this schedule are provided free by the Government (for example, through your local doctor or local community health centre) for those eligible for Medicare. However, it’s important to remember that some doctors charge a consultation fee.

The first vaccine on the schedule is given at birth. While most of the vaccines are scheduled to be given during infancy and early childhood, the program includes vaccines that are recommended throughout life.

Australian Immunisation Register

You can check your child’s immunisation status on the Australian Immunisation Register (AIR) by requesting a free ‘Immunisation History Statement’. It doesn’t matter where in Australia your child was immunised - the register records the details of all vaccinations given to children younger than 7 years who live in Australia.

You may need a copy of your child’s immunisation history to enrol them in childcare or school, or to receive some family assistance payments from the Australian Government.

You can request a record of your child’s immunisation history through the website for the Australian Immunisation Register, or by phoning 1800 653 809 (free call). The record can be posted to you.

Last Reviewed: 16 January 2017
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References

1. Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI). The Australian immunisation handbook, 10th ed (2016 update). Canberra: Australian Government Department of Health, 2016.
2. National Immunisation Program Schedule (from 20 April 2015). http://immunise.health.gov.au/internet/immunise/publishing.nsf/Content/national-immunisation-program-schedule (accessed Dec 2016).
3. Immunise Australia Program. Frequently asked questions (updated 2 Jun 2015). http://immunise.health.gov.au/internet/immunise/publishing.nsf/Content/frequently-asked-questions (accessed Jan 2017).
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