Written by Caroline Meyer

When it comes to immunisation, new mums often have many questions. The first line for answers to these questions are the doctors and nurses that your family frequents or a medical practitioner that is focused on babies and children. They have years if experience in most cases and have heard almost all of the questions that you need to ask previously.  They can advise when and where the vaccines can be done as well.  Immunisation consists of getting a vaccination against various diseases to protect you against the contracting the disease. 

When a vaccination is given, it creates a reaction within the body that stimulates an immune response. This means that your body develops antibodies which can effectively defend against the disease should you come in to contact with it. The initial immune response is usually fairly mild and there are usually only minor or no symptoms at all. In the future, these antibodies stop the infection if you come in to contact with it, preventing you from becoming ill as a result. 

Babies and children have an immune system that is still in the process of developing to be able to help defend against illnesses. Immunisation basically acts as a booster to the immune system to reduce the risk of contracting serious illnesses such as whooping cough that can result in loss of life if contracted without any defence against it. Immunisations are done at various times for a variety of illnesses to ensure adequate defence should the child be exposed to the diseases.  There are vaccines against whooping cough, mumps, diphtheria, tetanus, chickenpox, measles, hepatitis B, polio, rubella, rotavirus, pneumococcal disease, meningococcal disease (strains A, C, W and Y) as well as haemophilus influenzae type B. Teenagers can also receive immunisations against human papillomavirus (HPV). For children with underlying health issues or who are at greater risk of contracting specific diseases may also receive recommendations to have further immunisations that are not generally offered. 

The immunisations are done according to a specific schedule to allow the immune system to build up before the risk of them contracting the illness as far as possible. Babies and children are also likely to respond best to the vaccines at certain ages. The schedule should be kept to in order to maximize the effectiveness of the vaccines. If you miss one or more you should get in contact with your doctor to reschedule these as soon as possible. They will usually given you a modified schedule at this point to try and get your child back on the right schedule to receive the vaccines at the right age.  

While immunisation is effective, it does not protect your child from all infectious diseases. Different strains of a virus may not be covered and many diseases don’t have a vaccine as yet. Children can also contract the disease after an immunisation if it has not started to work as yet or hasn’t worked as well as it should. For example, around 10% of children contract a mild version of chickenpox even though they have received the vaccine at the correct intervals. 

For small children, you may want to discuss what is going to happen and why they need to receive the immunization. You can also find a way to reduce the stress or offer a reward for going through the process. Expect some tears and discomfort and be prepared to offer consolation. If you are breastfeeding, you can try breastfeeding during the immunisation to give your baby comfort. You can also try distractions such as playing with toys, reading a book or giving something sweet to drink before the vaccination. If they have comfort toys or blankies you can take this with to help console them as well. There are also gels and creams that contain an anaesthetic agent that are safe for most children to use. Check on whether this would be of use to your child and if it is age appropriate. It is okay to pick your child up for a hug or to walk with them after being immunized as well. Often this will help alleviate some of the distress. 

Do not delay immunisation due to minor illnesses such as a cold. If they have a fever and are seriously ill you would need to discuss with your doctor on whether or not to have the immunisation or if it should be delayed until the child is feeling better. Note that many schools and kindergartens require proof that your child has been immunized before they can be enrolled. If there are specific reasons for exemption, proof would need to be provided. If immunisations are not up to date, they would require you to prove that there is a schedule in place to catch up on the missing vaccinations. In Australia, children that are not fully immunized also do not qualify for the Child Care Subsidy. There may also be further implications such as a reduction in the Family Tax Benefit. Teenagers are usually immunized at school and this is funded under the National Immunisation Program. Should your child miss the immunisation at school, it can be done by your GP or local clinic.  

Immunisations do have minor side effects for many people but serious side effects are rare. Some of the most common side effects are pain at the injection location, vomiting, fever, headaches or just feeling unwell. In very rare cases there may be febrile convulsions due to high fevers, anaphylaxis due to an allergic reaction (less than 1 in a million cases) or a bowel obstruction after rotavirus immunisation (very rare).  If you are concerned about any of the side effects your child may be experiencing after immunization, consult with your doctor on how to proceed. Report any serious side effects to your local or territory health authority.