Over the course of the 20th century, modern medicine made some reasonably big strides, and immunisation is one of those biggest strides. Dr Joe Kosterich talks about vaccinations, including why we take them, when and which ones we take, common reactions to vaccinations, and what to do if we’re sick at the scheduled time.
Fifty years ago, conditions like diphtheria, polio, tetanus and measles were fairly commonplace, and there were a reasonable number of adults and children who were contracting these illnesses and dying from them. Today we don’t see – at least in the developed world – very much if at all of these illnesses. It’s not completely by coincidence that that’s happened. The introduction of immunisations has helped reduce these illnesses by a considerable amount, to the point where some are all but eliminated.
When you have a newborn baby you will find that there is a schedule of vaccinations for your baby over the first few years of life, and particularly the first year of life. The current standard vaccination schedules in Australia start with an injection at birth, which is hepatitis B, and then there are immunisations at 2, 4, 6, 12 and 18 months. There are slightly different ones given at that time, and the schedule does change periodically. However, the key ones that are covered in those first 18 months are polio, diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough, measles, mumps, rubella, hepatitis B, and pneumococcus, which is a cause of pneumonia and ear infections in some children.
Fortunately we have combined vaccinations, so if you’re thinking out there, “Oh my god, does this mean 25 different needles,” the answer to that is no. In fact, the most that is given at any one time is three separate needles, and generally it’s only two because of the combinations.
It’s fair to say that children and babies will scream a little bit when they get given a vaccine, and I think that is not to be laughed at and is not surprising. However, a couple of key points with it. Number one: it’s not an emotional issue for children and they get over it very quickly. There are a small percentage of children who do have reactions to vaccines – it is fortunately quite rare, and certainly that’s something that can be dealt with by your doctor and sometimes a specialist if need be.
There are some simple things you can do before your child’s vaccine. Some people recommend giving a small dose of paracetamol beforehand to provide a bit of soothing and also to help counteract if there might be a low-grade temperature afterwards. The other thing that is important is to be relaxed yourself. One thing I’ve noticed over 20 years in general practice is that if parents are really stressed and nervous about a needle, then the baby does pick that up. Call it subliminal, call it whatever you like, but babies – particularly young babies – do pick up on what their parents are feeling. So even if you’re not that calm naturally, make yourself a little bit calmer – this will certainly help your child.
There is a schedule – it is running over the first 18 months and covers all the vaccines we’ve spoken about. There’s a booster at around age 4 or 5, and then after that we’re getting into the school year ones.
If your baby is not well, obviously it can be delayed. If you’re not sure, take your baby along to your GP or doctor and they’ll be able to advise you if the baby can have the vaccination on schedule or whether they might need to wait a week or two. If you have to wait a week or two, it isn’t the end of the world – we don’t like to get too far behind, but don’t stress too much.
To sum up, immunisations against serious diseases have brought about significant reductions – almost elimination – of a number of these conditions. On the one hand people say, “Why do we vaccinate against these things, they don’t occur?” They don’t occur because we have been able to all but eliminate them. Reactions to immunisations do occur but are generally very mild and not serious, and don’t happen that often. The vast majority of children will have their shot; they might be a little bit grizzly for a few minutes (sometimes longer, usually not), and then they will just move on to the next thing. If it seems like a busy time, vaccinations don’t take a long time to do, and it is important to make sure that your child is up to date.
For more information on immunisation, including the childhood immunisation scedule, types of vaccines, preconception screening, as well as some useful videos, see Immunisation.