Immunisation - your questions answered

No parent likes to see their child sick – and immunising them against infectious diseases can protect them from serious diseases. But what if you have doubts about vaccine safety?

A shot in the dark?

Many parents have doubts about immunising their children, fearing possible side-effects. The decision is yours – but it affects not only your child’s health, but your family’s and anyone you come into contact with if your child falls ill. If you have concerns, get informed so you can make the best decision for your child’s health and wellbeing…

Why is it so important for me to immunise my baby if the diseases it protects her from are now so rare?

It’s correct that the diseases we vaccinate our children against are now very rare – but this is because of immunisation. If parents do not get their children vaccinated there is a risk these diseases could make a comeback. As an example, Japan suffered a major outbreak of whooping cough in the late 1970s after parents assumed it was safe not to bother getting their babies vaccinated.

Think about the bigger picture too: your child might well be at very low risk if you don’t get her immunised, as ‘herd immunity’ from many serious diseases has been well-established. But if enough parents don’t get their children vaccinated, that herd immunity you’re relying on to keep your child well will become less and your safety net may no longer exist. And what about children and adults who can’t be immunised due to health problems such as leukaemia, or babies who are too young to be immunised against certain diseases? Immunising your child also helps to protect their health.

We may have low levels of vaccine-preventable diseases but the bacteria that causes them is still out there, or may be only a plane ride away. Most experts believe that continuing to immunise our children until diseases are totally eradicated is the best way to keep them and future generations – even your grandchildren – safe.

But don’t vaccines weaken the immune system?

Vaccines are very weak versions of natural diseases, so while the diseases themselves can weaken your child to the extent he could pick up something else if he has chicken pox or measles, the vaccines for these diseases do not result in the same effect. There is also no evidence that courses of immunisation expose a child to so many bacteria that his immune system can’t keep up.

Vaccines have to meet the highest safety standards and it can take years of testing before they’re licensed. Once in use, they’re continually monitored for safety and effectiveness

I’m concerned about multiple immunisations – isn’t it too much for my baby to handle when he’s so young?

The Department of Health recommends simultaneous administration of childhood vaccines where appropriate. However, it’s natural to be concerned – after all, children in the UK receive anything up to 11 shots by the time they’re five, and as many as five vaccines at one time.

It is a challenge to your baby’s immune system but he should be able to handle it. After all, our bodies are exposed to a host of different bacteria and viruses every day. Vaccinations are a drop in the ocean compared to what your child encounters in his environment: in the food he eats, the air he breathes. Plus, the potency of vaccines has decreased hugely since the early days – the old smallpox vaccine alone contained around 200 viral proteins, while the 11 recommended vaccines children get today contain 130. Research carried out in the US suggested that a baby could safely cope with around 10,000 vaccines at any one time.

I’ve heard that catching the disease itself gives a child better immunity – doesn’t that mean he’s better off taking his chances?

That is the case with some diseases, but with others – such as Hib, pneumococcal meningitis and tetanus, the vaccines give stronger immunity. But you need to consider the side-effects of catching the actual diseases – although serious complications are rare, they do exist. Polio could leave your child paralysed, while measles, mumps and rubella could potentially harm his hearing and vision and cause brain damage. These diseases kill too: worldwide, measles alone kills around 500,000 children a year. Vaccines are our best defense against these diseases.

What about the link with autism?

Two scientific studies carried out in the UK during the 90s indicated there might be a link between the MMR and autism, but further investigations have not replicated the findings and have also suggested the methods used in the original studies were flawed. Additional research has suggested that the increase in the number of children diagnosed with autism is not associated with any increase in the use of the MMR, and that the incidence of autism is the same in children whether they’ve had the MMR or not. Other research has indicated that autism may be related to abnormalities in the development of an unborn baby’s central nervous system, and subtle signs of the disorder have been reported in babies under one, well below the age at which the MMR is given.

I’m concerned about mercury in vaccines – could it harm my baby?

Many vaccines used to incorporate a preservative called thiomersal, which contains mercury, but its use in vaccines routinely given to children ceased in 2004*. It has been suggested there may be a link between mercury in older vaccines and autism in children, but studies have shown that the incidence of autism was the same among groups of children who had and hadn’t been given vaccines containing thiomersal. Mercury is a naturally occurring element and is found, in low levels, in water, infant formula and breast milk – in fact, a baby who is exclusively breastfed ingests more than twice the amount of mercury contained in vaccines, and 15 times the amount contained in the flu vaccine. The MMR has never contained thiomersal.
*The flu vaccine does still contain thiomersal

I’ve heard vaccinations can cause fevers. Will my baby be affected?

While vaccines are safe, like any medicine they can cause reactions. Usually any reaction is mild: your baby may be irritable and suffer soreness or redness where the shot is given, or a low-grade fever for a couple of days. If your child does develop a fever, keep her cool and give the recommended dose of infant paracetamol or ibuprofen to help lower her temperature. If you’re at all concerned, call your doctor or NHS Direct, on 0845 4647.

More serious reactions are rare but they do happen, and may be due to your child being allergic to a substance contained within a vaccine. If your child seems to have difficulty breathing after a vaccination, develops a rapid heartbeat or starts to wheeze, call 999 or take him to your nearest A&E department.

Related links

Your immunisation timetable: Health Visitor Anne Smith has spent 30 years helping parents and is a strong supporter of child immunisation. In this article, Anne explains the immunisation process and shows what to expect in an immunisation timetable.

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