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Understanding vaccination

06 August, 2015

Over recent years, there has been heated debate about vaccination.

Vaccination is the process of administering a weakened form of a virus, which stimulates the immune system to build resilience against that disease. Immunisation protects children and adults from contracting harmful infections and viruses. Immunisation uses the body’s natural defence mechanism to build resistance to specific infections.

The Australian Academy of Science advises that vaccinations contain two main ingredients - antigens and adjuvants. Antigens are designed to cause the immune system response, and adjuvants bolster the response.



The Australian Government recommends that children receive various vaccinations at different stages of their lives. Adults, too, are advised to be immunised against certain diseases at different points during their lifetime. Your ‘HALO’ determines which immunisations you need, and when you should get them.

Your HALO is determined by your:

  • Health
  • Age
  • Lifestyle, and
  • Occupation. 

Some health issues such as asthma, diabetes, and heart, lung, spleen or kidney conditions, mean you can benefit from extra or more frequent immunisation. Babies that are born prematurely may also benefit from additional vaccinations. Your doctor will advise whether this is best for you and your child. 

If you have a temperature or your immune system is already fighting off an illness, then it is generally recommended that you wait until you are completely well again before receiving any vaccinations.

Children are most at risk of infections, therefore a range of vaccinations are considered necessary during the early years. The Australian Government recommends parents vaccinate against:

  • Rotavirus;
  • Diphtheria;
  • Tetanus;
  • Whooping Cough;
  • Haemophilus Influenza type b (Hib);
  • Hepatitis B;
  • Polio;
  • Pneumococcal Disease;
  • Chicken Pox;
  • Human Papillomavirus (HPV);
  • Measles, Mumps and Rubella (MMR). 

For an easy-to-understand and helpful infographic on what and when to get your child vaccinated, please visit the Better Health Website, by clicking here. The infographic shows recommended vaccinations from birth up until the age of 65. It’s recommended that those over the age of 65 are vaccinated against certain influenza viruses, as they can be more susceptible to illness. 

Lifestyle choices like travelling, playing certain types of sport, sexual activity and smoking can determine if you require additional vaccinations. If you travel frequently, you might require specific vaccinations before you visit certain places. For example, if you travel to a tropical region it’s usually advised that you receive vaccinations against malaria, yellow fever, rabies, typhoid and cholera, amongst others. 

If you work in a hospital, school or day care centre; if your work brings you into contact with animals; or if you travel frequently for work, you are likely to require certain additional vaccinations.

For more information about your individual vaccination requirements, speak with your doctor or immunisation provider. 

What is the debate about?

There  are a small number of people who do not believe in vaccination, with disputes ranging from the efficacy and safety of vaccines to the threat of civil liberty that compulsory vaccinations pose. 

Common issues raised include:

  • Safety

    There is a certain level of fear within the general public regarding vaccine safety that stems from the anti-vaccine movement. In the 1970s and 80s, several cases of brain injury and seizures were linked to the pertussis (whooping cough) portion of the DPT vaccine, prompting a legal backlash that threatened to put vaccine manufacturers out of business. The pertussis vaccine has since been modified and its safety improved. In 1998, a study suggesting a connection between the MMR vaccine and autism was published in The Lancet, and some parents began to refuse the vaccine. The Lancet has since retracted its study, after an investigation disproved the link. In fact, the study’s lead author, Andrew Wakefield, was found guilty of deliberately falsifying information that was damaging to the reputation of vaccines. 

  • Effectiveness

    Some anti-vaccination protesters claim the vaccination practice is ‘unnatural’. Some of these people prefer instead to rely on their own immune response to a disease. In order for this method to be effective, a person must first contract the disease and fight it off and recover. The risks of contracting an infection naturally can be great. If that person recovers completely from a disease in its full form, depending on the disease in question, they may not be able to contract it again (such is the case with measles and chickenpox). 

  • A Parent’s Right

    Much of the current controversy stems from the notion that a government should not be able to enforce decisions on children on behalf of a parent. At present, choosing to refuse vaccination is not illegal, however, new government policies in Australia have made vaccination mandatory for children attending school and child care facilities. This is because public health authorities view large-scale vaccination as essential to preventing epidemic diseases. 

Where do most Australians stand on immunisation?

The Department of Health and Ageing (DoHA) reports that the majority of Australians are supportive of immunisation. Many of the parents against immunisation are from particular regions, however the debate is widespread. 

Most Australians are said to recognise the benefits that vaccination provides against serious diseases, with stable coverage rates sitting around 93%. The Government is aiming for a widespread coverage of 95%. 


To boost the rates of children being vaccinated, financial disincentives are now in place. Parents who refuse to vaccinate their children could now miss out on government benefits of up to $15,000 per child. 

Recent changes to childcare legislation in most Australian states also require parents to provide documentation about their child’s immunisation history. This initiative aims to encourage parents to keep up-to-date with their children’s jabs as, of the 7% of Australian children not immunised, 4% has been attributed to ‘forgetfulness’, poverty, or social exclusion. Only 3% either choose not to vaccinate due to beliefs or concerns, or their child has an autoimmune disease that rules them ineligible. 

Common myths and misconceptions 

‘Vaccines are unsafe and cause side effects’

Vaccines have previously been reported to cause side effects, such as seizures, fever and thrombocytopenia (bruising easily). Any vaccines thought to cause such side effects (such as the rotavirus Rotashield®), have now been removed from use. 

Though immunisation can cause side effects like fever, pain or swelling, these occurrences are rare and are usually temporary, and are far less severe than catching the disease itself. Only three in every 10,000 children react to the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine, for example. 

‘We’re being forced into something that could be dangerous’

While immunisation carries a very small amount of risk, the effect of a disease epidemic could be extremely damaging to a community. ‘Herd immunity’ is effective in eradicating infectious diseases in their entirety, such as in the case of polio. 

‘Vaccines weaken the immune system’

All vaccines are tested under strict guidelines, and there is no evidence suggesting that vaccines weaken the immune system. Vaccines contain only a minimum amount of antigens to stimulate the immune system. 

‘Vaccines cause autism’

The original study published on the link between the MMR vaccine and autism has been disproved. The Lancet retracted the study, stating sufficient untainted evidence was not provided. 

‘As long as other children are immunised, mine don’t have to be’

The ability of immunisations to prevent the spread of infection depends on a certain number of children being immunised. To be highly effective, immunisation coverage rates need to be at around 95%. 

‘Major illness is on its way out, so why bother?’

Despite a large decline in many preventable diseases, they are still present. Without widespread immunisation, major diseases such as measles and rubella could strike again and cause an epidemic. As newborn children cannot be vaccinated, an unimmunised child can pass on an infection to a vulnerable baby. 

‘Why should we inject our kids with polyethylene glycol/brake fluid?’

There is absolutely no brake fluid in vaccines. While there are very small traces of a different chemical which is a part of the glycol ether family of hydrocarbons (2-phenoxyethano) in vaccines, this is an antibacterial to help vaccines stay sterile. 

‘My child could get the disease it’s supposed to prevent’

Many of the vaccinations used today do not contain live viruses. Of the live viruses used (such as the MMR vaccine), the rare case of a child actually contracting the disease (which usually only occurs if they already have a weakened immune system from an unrelated illness) would result in far milder symptoms than if they had contracted the disease naturally. Your doctor will advise you if your child should not be receiving vaccinations.

‘Reduced rates of disease aren’t the result of immunisation, but of natural decline’

Evidence clearly shows that since immunisation was introduced, the rate of major disease reduced dramatically. In the 1960s, there were nearly 800,000 cases of the measles in Britain, compared with less than 200,000 cases in the 1970s (following immunisation). Today, the numbers are in the hundreds, and the last person to die in Australia from measles was in 1995. 

‘Chickenpox isn’t a big deal. I had it, and I’m fine’

While you might not have had any complications from chickenpox, the reality is that chickenpox can be fatal. Before the vaccine was introduced, chickenpox resulted in serious complications, including pneumonia and dangerous skin infections. 

‘Vaccines contain formaldehyde’

Although it may sound scary, formaldehyde is used to inactivate viruses in some vaccines, and after clean up small traces can still be found. However, this is much less than the amount of formaldehyde already circulating in your blood naturally, and far less than the amount of formaldehyde found in apples and pears. 

‘Vaccines don’t provide full coverage’

This is true. The effectiveness of a live virus vaccination is around 95%, while an inactivated virus vaccination sits at between 75-80%. Even with vaccination you can still contract a disease, however the risks are significantly lower, and if you do, your symptoms will be far less severe. Some examples of the effectiveness of certain diseases are listed below:

  • Diphtheria: 84 out of every 100 people vaccinated will be completely immune
  • Haemophilus Influenzae type b (hib) – 95 out of every 100 people vaccinated will be completely immune
  • Measles, mumps, rubella – 95 out of every 100 people vaccinated will be completely immune
  • Whooping cough – about 85 out of every 100 people vaccinated will be completely immune
  • Polio – 95 out of every 100 people vaccinated will be completely immune.

Better Health Channel 

Doing your own research

The National Centre for Immunisation Research & Surveillance (NCIRS) aims to inform policy and planning for immunisation services in Australia, and to support initiatives in the surveillance of vaccine preventable diseases. The centre also conducts an extensive program of clinical trials and epidemiologic research funded by diverse sources. 

It offers quick links to immunisation schedules, fact sheets, vaccination history tables, adverse events and up-to-date publications, making it a great website for starting your research. 

And if you have questions about vaccination and wish to speak with a medical professional, then make an appointment with your GP or primary health care practitioner today.


Australian Government –Department of Health
Australian Academy of Science
Better Health Channel 1 2 3
The Medical Journal of Australia
The Journal of the American Medical Association
Australian Vaccination Network
The University of Wollongong
History of Vaccinations
The Australian
SBS News 1 2 3

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