The facts about immunisation

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If it’s time to take your bub for his first lot of needles, there may be questions swirling around your head. To help put your mind at ease, let’s look at the facts.

What exactly is immunisation?

Immunisation involves the use of vaccines, which are injections or sometimes oral solutions given to stimulate the body’s protective immune system. “Vaccines may contain either inactivated parts of an infecting organism, or a highly altered form of the organism that can switch on the immune system, but not cause disease,” explains Professor Cheryl Jones, a paediatric infectious disease specialist at The Children’s Hospital at Westmead and The University of Sydney. The goal is that if or when your child encounters the real-deal disease, his body is primed to launch a fast and effective response to stop it from taking hold.

According to the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, “immunisation against infectious diseases has been more effective in preventing disease and death than any other medical intervention.” It’s important stuff.

Australia’s National Immunisation Program Schedule covers up to 16 diseases, with a hepatitis B vaccine given at birth and other vaccinations given at two, four, six and 12 and 18 months of age, as well as at four years and during the school years.

It may seem like a lot, but the doses and timing are designed to ensure your bub’s system can handle it – after all, the idea is to make his immune system stronger, not to weaken it.

Is immunisation really needed?

“Vaccination is a victim of its own success in many ways, as since it’s so effective many diseases no longer appear in our community. So, being out of sight and out of mind, we forget how devastating these diseases actually are,” says medical researcher Dr Rachael Dunlop.

Professor Jones agrees. “Vaccines are used to prevent diseases including measles, polio, whooping cough, meningitis, rubella and diphtheria. In Australia, most parents aren’t familiar with how serious these infections can be. However, you only have to travel to our near neighbours in parts of Asia where there are limited vaccination programs to see that these infections still cause death and disability.”

Measles, for example, carries risks including encephalitis and brain damage, and according to the World Health Organization, the disease kills more than 400 children around the world every day, with about 18 deaths every hour. They’re sobering statistics.

Whooping cough is another serious disease, which commonly requires hospitalisation and, according to Dr Dunlop, is sadly fatal in one in 200 unvaccinated children and has no cure.

Dr Dunlop explains that we can wipe out diseases with vaccination, and measles was even heading this way. “Australia was declared measles free in 2005 by the World Health Organization, before we became complacent, stopped being so diligent about vaccinating and it got a chance to take hold again.” It’s for this reason that keeping vaccination up is important, even if the diseases seem rare.

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But are vaccines safe?

Vaccines are very safe and though they can cause some small, usually very minor side effects, these are far outweighed by the overwhelmingly positive benefits.

“All licensed vaccines used in Australia are manufactured to strict safety guidelines overseen by the Therapeutic Goods Association (TGA),” Professor Jones assures.

There are many other trained, scientific eyes keeping watch too, including the National Centre for Immunisation Research & Surveillance (NCIRS), which monitors vaccine-preventable diseases and any adverse events relating to immunisation.

Despite these measures, and the long history of many of the vaccines we use, reading online can turn up all kinds of horror stories and conspiracy theories. It’s important to realise that the information and beliefs perpetuated by groups who are anti-vaccination “typically have no sound scientific basis or are a misrepresentation of the scientific literature,” the NCIRS says in its publication Myths and Realities. And many vaccine falsehoods can easily be debunked…

Vaccines do not cause autism. "The theory that vaccines cause autism was first suggested by Andrew Wakefield in 1998,” says Dr Dunlop. His research has since been thoroughly discredited and withdrawn from the journal in which it was published. “Wakefield has lost his medical licence for showing ‘callous disregard’ for children’s welfare,” she says.

Dr Dunlop instead points to an exhaustive review of 12,000 peer-reviewed articles conducted in 2011, which concluded that there is no causal relationship between vaccines and autism. The simple truth, she says, is that we don’t know what causes autism.

Vaccines are not full of toxins. “Some vaccines contain very small amounts of additives, which are used to stabilise them, preserve their shelf life, stop the vaccine contents sticking to the vial, or to switch on the immune response,” says Professor Jones. “There is no evidence that these additives cause serious side effects,” she says, and again, all ingredients are assessed by the TGA.

Mercury in vaccines receives a lot of attention, and this stems from the use of a preservative called thiomersal. “Thiomersal contains a form of mercury called ethyl mercury, which has not been associated with any of the toxic effects linked to the related compound, methyl mercury, a neurotoxin,” the NCIRS says. Ethyl mercury does not accumulate in the body (which is how mercury becomes toxic), and “thiomersal has been used in very small amounts in vaccines for about 80 years with no evidence of it being harmful.” That being said, since 2000, no vaccine offered as part of the National Immunisation Program for children has contained thiomersal, as the use of sealed, single-use vials has cut the need for preservatives.

Vaccines may, however, contain traces of other elements, such as aluminium, “but the concentrations are so low as to not be harmful to the body,” Dr Dunlop assures. The doses are typically much lower than what the body naturally produces or encounters on a daily basis.

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Can my choices affect others?

The decision of one family does have the potential to affect others. Civil Liberties Australia, whose role is to stand for people’s individual rights, acknowledges that “the larger the number of [vaccination] opt-outs, the much-increased risk that one unvaccinated child will start an epidemic which becomes widespread.” For this reason, it advises that “one person’s right to choose needs to be balanced against the right of another person not to have disease inflicted on a child when a disease could be avoided by undertaking a health program which is freely available.”

It may sound startling, but infectious disease specialist Professor Paul Goldwater explains: “Protection against serious infectious diseases requires a critical number of individuals in the community to be immunised so that the whole community benefits from ‘herd’ immunity.” In a nutshell, herd immunity is the idea that when enough people are immunised, diseases have less opportunity to spread through a community and this keeps safe its most vulnerable members (such as babies too young to be fully immunised, those who are sick and people whose immune systems are compromised).

Are vaccines truly effective?

“No vaccine is 100 per cent effective and since everybody’s physiology is different, not everyone will develop immunity to the same degree – a vaccine is not a force field,” Dr Dunlop explains. Being immunised won’t stop your child from breathing in a virus or picking up bacteria off a toy, but if his vaccine-protected body doesn’t completely stop the infection from taking root, the seriousness of the disease will be significantly reduced, and this is key. He might show only slight symptoms, or no real symptoms at all.

Are there alternatives?

While it’s important to ensure your littlie has plenty of nutritious foods, fresh air and physical activity for great overall health, no amount of healthy living can provide the specific immunity needed to fight off the bacterial and viral invaders vaccines are designed to protect against.

For very young bubs not yet able to be immunised, there is some protection offered by maternal antibodies passed on during pregnancy and through breastfeeding, though this wanes over time and does not cover all diseases. “For newborns too young to be vaccinated – or for people with compromised immune systems – the best way to protect against vaccine-preventable infections is to reduce their exposure by immunising their contacts,” Professor Jones advises.

Natural preparations, such as homeopathic ‘vaccines’, shouldn’t be seen as alternatives to the official vaccination schedule. There is no peer-reviewed, medical evidence to prove that these therapies work and the Australian Register of Homeopaths itself recommends conventional immunisation, explaining that homeopathic treatments are not substitutes.

Want to know more?

To learn more about immunising your child, there is plenty of reputable, evidence-based information out there:

  • The Immunise Australia Program website is full of fact sheets and answers to FAQs, plus the complete schedule for the National Immunisation Program.

  • Contact the Immunise Australia Information Line on 1800 671 811.

  • See the NCIRS’s Chain of Protection initiative

  • Talk to a trusted GP, paediatrician or child health nurse.

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