The evidence for the effectiveness of vaccination is overwhelming. As such, the Australian government provides free vaccination for all babies and children for thirteen diseases covered in the immunisation schedule. These diseases are:
- whooping cough (pertussis)
- rotaviral gastroenteritis
- poliomyelitis (polio)
- Haemophilus influenza type b (Hib)
- hepatitis B
- meningococcal C
- pneumococcal disease
- chicken pox (varicella).
What you get and when to get it
The current immunisation schedule is as follows:
- Birth – Hepatitis B (Hep B).
- Two months – Hib, polio, pneumococcal, rotavirus, Hep B, and diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis (DTPa).
- Four months – DPTa, hib, polio, pneumococcal, rotavirus, Hep B.
- Six months – DPTa, hib, polio, pneumococcal, rotavirus, Hep B (or at 12 months).
- 12 months – Measles, mumps and rubella (MMR), hib, Hepatitis B (unless given at 6 months) and meningococcal C.
- 18 months – MMR, varicella (chickenpox) and pneumococcal.
- Four years – DTP, polio, MMR (if not given at 18 months).
Why immunisation is important
Now that some diseases have been completely eradicated and the incidence of others greatly reduced in the community, people no longer remember the diseases and their devastating effects. This had led to complacency among some members of the public who feel no need to vaccinate their children, or even oppose vaccination, where the worry about adverse reactions to vaccines gets blown out of proportion.
The evidence is incontrovertible – childhood immunisation saves lives and prevents disability caused by serious disease. By immunising your child, you are offering them 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 – and the benefit of this protection far outweighs the rare complications associated with immunisation.
Furthermore, 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, and polio is heading the same way.
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 whooping cough, for instance, are highly contagious and spread by coughing and sneezing. In communities where immunisation rates are low, when these diseases are introduced (such as by people holidaying overseas) they have caused numerous cases –
including fatal ones.
All the vaccine-preventable diseases have shown dramatic reductions in incidence after the introduction of vaccination.
You may 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.
Do remember that vaccinations keep not only your child safe, but the rest of the community too. Some people, including children, are immuno-compromised and rely on the vaccination of other children to keep them healthy.
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.
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.
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.
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 two of the three 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, or partial failure (where the disease is still less severe than it would be for an unvaccinated child).
Booster doses are required at various stages throughout childhood and adulthood 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. Babies receive small doses of vaccine, which require boosters to remain effective, therefore increasing the number of shots given.
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, consult your GP if you are at all concerned. Ultimately, the risk of disease is far greater than the risk of vaccination.
If your child has a severe reaction to immunisation or the reaction lasts for more than a couple of days, talk to your GP. There is a reporting system for reactions, and it's important to record instances that occur.
Does the MMR vaccine cause inflammatory bowel disease and/or autism?
Suggestions that the MMR vaccine can cause inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and autism came about in 1998 as a result of a study that focused on the decreased absorption of vitamins and minerals due to IBD in children and 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. The lead author of the study, Andrew Wakefield, was barred from practising medicine in 2010. The study was also accused of being an "elaborate fraud" by the British Medical Journal in 2011.
After an extensive study of 6100 French school-aged children, it has been conclusively proven that there is no association between the MMR vaccine and either autism or IBD.
Can I use homeopathic vaccines instead?
No. The Medical Association for Homeopathy recommends orthodox immunisation by a medical doctor with standard vaccines. There have been few studies conducted into homeopathic "vaccines", and there is no scientifically plausible explanation of how they could possibly work. The government is cracking down on suppliers of homeopathic "vaccines".
The government has published a downloadable booklet called Your guide to understanding childhood immunisation.