Guide to childhood vaccinations

There are nine diseases that are preventable by childhood immunisation.
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  • Updated:1 May 2013

01 .Immunisations for newborns and infants


The immunisation process protects children and adults against harmful infections that circulate in our communities before you come into contact with them. By exposing your body to a small amount of a specific infection through immunisation, your immune system responds - as it should - by building a response which will protect your body should you ever be exposed to that infection again in the future.

Almost all Australian adults who have grown up in this country were vaccinated as children, and as a consequence, many of the illnesses that struck down children 100 years ago are now a rarity. There are nine diseases that are preventable by childhood immunisation. All of these can cause serious complications that can potentially result in death. They are:

  • Diphtheria
  • Tetanus
  • whooping cough
  • poliomyelitis (polio)
  • measles
  • mumps
  • rubella
  • Haemophilus influenza type b (Hib)
  • hepatitis B

The Medicare immunisation schedule explains the various vaccinations your child will have, which include:

  • Birth - hepatitis B
  • 2 months - Hib, polio, pneumococcal, rotavirus and DTPa (sometimes combined with hepatitis B)
  • 4 months - DPTa, hib, polio pneumococcal, rotavirus
  • 6 months - DPTa, hib, polio pneumococcal, rotavirus (this dose depends which brand was used)
  • 12 months - Measles, mumps and rubella, hib (sometimes combined with hepatitis B), meningococcal C
  • 18 months - Varicella (chickenpox) and pneumococcal

Why so many immunisations?

Babies require small doses of vaccine, which require boosters to remain effective.

While it has been argued that improved living standards and sanitation have reduced the incidence of infectious diseases, vaccination has also had a clear and significant impact. Measles and pertussis (whooping cough), for instance, are spread by coughing and sneezing, and the attack rates are almost 100 per cent, no matter what the standards of hygiene are. All the vaccine-preventable diseases have shown dramatic reductions in incidence after the introduction of vaccination.

Why should I have my child immunised? 

  • By immunising your child, you are offering him or her the safest and most effective form of protection against many serious diseases. After immunisation, your child has protection against many diseases that can still circulate in the community - the benefit of this protection far outweighs the rare complications associated with immunisation. 
  • The infection can be taken out of the community if enough people are immunised. Without carriers to spread these diseases, it is possible to eradicate serious diseases entirely - this is how smallpox was eradicated.

Immunisation register

The Australian Childhood Immunisation Register (ACIR) automatically records the details of every vaccination given to your child while under the age of seven and living in Australia.

The ACIR provides: 

  • An immunisation history statement when your child turns one, two and five years of age.
  • Documents to help with eligibility for some family payments.
  • The option of getting a copy of your child's immunisation details at any time.

For more information about the Immunisation Register, go to Medicare Australia.

The immunisation schedule

As all states vary slightly in the timing of their immunisation schedule, you can find the relevant information to your area at Immunise Australia Program.

Immunisation and family payments

In Australia, the government requires your child to be up to date with immunisation for a family to be eligible to receive Family Tax Part A supplement, the Child Care Benefit and Child Care Rebate - see the Department of Human Services' information on Immunising Your Children.

You can be exempted from immunisation if: 

  • Your child can't be immunised because of a medical condition - in this case, your GP will need to fill out a Medical Contra-indication form. 
  • Your child has a natural immunity to a disease, or a vaccine is unavailable - ask your GP to provide you with a letter explaining your specific situation. 
  • You have a personal, philosophical, or religious objection to immunisation - in this case, your GP should provide you with a Conscientious Objection form.

The ACIR will provide the relevant information. If you aren't up to date with your child's immunisation, to receive the payments, you will either be required to arrange for a catch-up program or apply for an exemption. 

This article was originally written by Ella Walsh and updated by Choice in May 2013. Sourced with permission from


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02.How vaccines work and side effects


Vaccines are made up of different things depending on the disease. They may contain: 

  • a very small dose of a live, but weakened form of a virus
  • a very small dose of killed bacteria or small parts of bacteria
  • a small dose of a modified toxin produced by bacteria
  • a small amount of preservative or a small amount of an antibiotic to preserve the vaccine 
  • a small amount of an aluminium salt which helps produce a better immune response

How long do vaccinations take to work?

Usually it takes several weeks to generate a normal immune response to a vaccination. Most immunisations require several doses to be given to build a long lasting protection - which means that a child who has received only 2 of the 3 doses of DTP (diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis) vaccine is only partly immunised. If exposed to any of these diseases, she could become ill because her immune system cannot properly and effectively protect her.

How long do they last?

Some immunisations last a lifetime - but most require a booster dose to increase protection as the initial vaccination effect weakens. After the initial immunisation program is followed, tetanus can last up to 30 years before a booster is needed, while other diseases such as whooping cough offer protection for approximately 5 years after the initial immunisation program is followed.

Once you've been immunised, are you protected against disease?

  • Immunisation doesn't protect 100% of the immunised population - with every vaccination there is a failure rate.
  • 5% of children who have been immunised against measles, mumps, rubella, tetanus, polio and Hib vaccines will not be protected.
  • 15% of children immunised against whooping cough will not be protected - although should they get the disease, their symptoms will be less severe.
  • 5% of children immunised against hepatitis B will not be immunised.
  • Booster doses are required because immunity does decrease over time.

Why are so many immunisations given to children?

It is during childhood that we are most vulnerable to serious infections - and many of the vaccinations given are to protect your child against the 'childhood diseases' - measles, mumps, whooping cough and rubella.

Your child's immune system is not capable of working as well as an adult's because it's immature and will be for many years. And while your child is born with some protection against illnesses as a result of a transfer of antibodies across the placenta and continues during breastfeeding, these antibodies wear off after a number of months, leaving your child exposed and unprotected against serious infection.

Are there side effects to immunisation?

The most common side effects of immunisation are redness and soreness at the site of the injection followed by a mild fever. While this may be upsetting at the time, these side effects are generally minor, temporary (lasting 1 - 2 days) and controlled with paracetamol. Other more serious side effects are very rare but if they do occur, so consult your GP if you are at all concerned.

Reactions to the MMR vaccine

A reaction to the MMR vaccine may occur 5-12 days after the immunisation and won't make your child infectious. Symptoms will last for approximately 48 hours and include:

  • mild fever 
  • faint rash
  • head cold
  • runny nose
  • cough and/or puffy eyes due to the measles part of the vaccine
  • swelling of the glands in the neck may happen about three weeks after the injection due to the mumps part of the vaccine.

Note: If your child has a severe reaction to immunisation or her reactions last for more than a couple of days, talk to your GP.

This article was originally written by Ella Walsh and updated by Choice in May 2013. Sourced with permission from .  

03.Vaccination myths

Vaccines are unsafe.

For opponents of immunisation, one of the major concerns is that vaccines cause harm, whether or not they prevent disease. In general, no biological product can be considered 100% safe. However, all vaccines available in Australia are required to pass quality, safety and efficacy requirements before they can be approved by the Australian Therapeutic Goods Administration. 

Infectious diseases are not serious and are a normal part of growing up.

Some parents believe that the vaccine preventable diseases of childhood do not cause serious illness and are a normal part of a child's growth. In Australia, in the ten years between 1989 and 1998 there were 581 recorded deaths from diseases preventable by vaccines on the current childhood immunisation schedule, with 440 deaths from hepatitis B, 88 deaths from Haemophilus influenzae type b, 1 death from diphtheria, 19 from measles and its complications, 14 from pertussis, 3 from mumps, and 16 from tetanus. There were 21 deaths recorded fom 1993 till 2005 from whooping cough.

Improved living standards and sanitation have reduced the incidence of infectious diseases, not immunisation.

It is often said that factors other than immunisation are responsible for the decline of communicable diseases. There are many reasons for the decline in communicable diseases, and an improved living standard is one of them. However, vaccination has also had a clear and significant impact. Measles and pertussis are spread by coughing and sneezing and the attack rates are almost 100% no matter what the living and cleanliness standards are. Polio is caused by an intestinal virus which spreads more easily under conditions of poor hygiene, but has caused epidemics in countries like Holland, Finland and Israel, all of which have high standards of hygiene. All the vaccine preventable diseases have shown dramatic reductions in incidence after the introduction of vaccination. 

The vaccines don't do their job because some immunised children still get sick.

Some parents believe that, since some children still get infected with vaccine-preventable diseases, then the vaccines don't work. While it's true that no vaccine has a 100% efficacy rate, there is a simple link between the numbers of vaccinated children, the vaccine's effectiveness and the number of vaccine failures. For example, measles will attack 100% of a non-immunised population, but where the vaccination has been given, 95% of the population will not get the disease if they are exposed to it. 

The side effects of DTP include brain damage.

The DTP vaccine contains material that will produce immunity to tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis. During the 1970s there was concern that the pertussis part of the vaccination could cause brain damage and encephalopathy, but as a result of ongoing and extensive scientific studies, it has been proven that there is no risk. Not immunising your child against pertussis, however, can lead to brain damage in the event of the disease being contracted. 

Vaccines cause the diseases they are supposed to prevent.

Live vaccines such as the MMR vaccine can display symptoms that replicate the diseases it is vaccinating against; however, these symptoms are not contagious and are not part of the actual diseases. In extremely rare cases, the oral version of the polio vaccination - which his no longer used in Australia - could cause paralysis at a rate of 1 in 2.5 million doses. 

Vaccines suppress the immune system.

It is sometimes argued that vaccines can actually suppress the immune system. The only time this has been seen to happen was following the use of high-titre measles vaccines - which have never been used in Australia. There is no evidence that this can occur in any other vaccines. 

Additives in vaccines are toxic.

Formaldehyde (used in the preparation of several vaccines), thiomersal (used as a preservative in several vaccines) and aluminium (used in some vaccine adjuvants) are additives that work to enhance the efficacy or lifespan of a vaccine. These ingredients have been assessed as safe and necessary by The Australian Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA). 

Vaccines cause Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).

Some people believe that vaccination causes SIDS because a proportion of children who die as a result of SIDS have recently been immunised. There is actual no link between the two beyond the fact that, as babies are immunised every two months for the first six months of their life, and children are most vulnerable to SIDS at this age, it should come as no surprise that a certain percentage of babies who died from SIDS were, coincidentally, recently vaccinated. 

MMR vaccine causes inflammatory bowel disease and autism.

Suggestions that the MMR vaccine can cause inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and autism came about in 1998 as a result of research that focussed on the decreased absorption of vitamins and minerals due to IBD in children and its resulting developmental disorders including autism. Since 1998 there has been ongoing research and the initial research has been retracted by The Lancet, the journal in which it appeared. Lead author of the study Andrew Wakefield was barred from medical practice in 2010. The study was also accused of being an "elaborate fraud" by the British Medical Journal in 2011.

After an extensive study of 6,100 French school-aged children, it has been conclusively proven that there is no association between the MMR vaccine and either autism or IBD. 

Hepatitis B vaccine causes multiple sclerosis (MS).

There was concern over the association of multiple sclerosis and the hepatitis b vaccine after a mass vaccination program in France showed a few cases of MS or MS-like illness associated with hepatitis b vaccine. After halting the program, the data was examined and it was shown that the incidence of the onset of MS in vaccinated people fell within the normal boundaries of the entire population. Mass hepatitis b immunisation programs in New Zealand, Taiwan and Alaska have not shown any illnesses that suggest MS. 

Vaccines are cultured on cell lines of aborted foetuses.

While bacteria can self-replicate, viruses are parasites and exist by repeatedly invading other cells. Most viruses are specific to the types of cells they live in, and so can only be developed as a vaccine by using these specific cells. Rubella can only live in human cells, and so the rubella part of the MMR vaccine used in Australia has been adapted to a human cell culture. This cell culture originally came from human foetal lung tissue of a foetus aborted at approximately 3 months gestation of a Caucasian female in about 1966. No new tissue has been added since the original samples were taken over 30 years ago and the cells, although uniform, no longer resemble the originals. No other foetal tissue is used to manufacture or research the rubella vaccine. The chicken pox (varicella) vaccine is also grown on a human cell line originally taken from a foetus many years ago and the varicella virus used in the vaccine strain originated in a young boy infected with chicken pox. 

Immunisation is unnatural.

Vaccines provide the same exposure to the immune system as an infection, but without the disease, so objecting to immunisation because it's 'not natural' makes no sense. Through immunisation, the body's immune system is made to work in the way it was intended. Waiting for 'natural' exposure to a contagious disease will not in any way make the immune system better or stronger. 

Homeopathic vaccines offer an alternative.

The Medical Association for Homoeopathy recommends orthodox immunisation with standard vaccines. There have been few studies conducted of homeopathic "vaccines" and as all the studies available do not address any of the diseases on the immunisation schedule, it is difficult to conclude whether homeopathic preparations are effective or not.

Some vaccines are no longer necessary. 

Just because diseases such as measles are now rare, don't be fooled into thinking that they are not serious. The vaccine preventable diseases are severe and immunisation prevents them.

This article was originally written by Ella Walsh and updated by Choice in May 2013. Sources include Immunise Australia Program, Raising Children Network, Health Insite, and Medicare Australia. Sourced with permission from