Vaccine update

The low-down on childhood vaccines

It’s fair to say there are many rumours surrounding the safety and efficacy of childhood immunizations. Here are some answers to help clear up some common misconceptions.

Why should my child get vaccinations? Isn’t she protected if everyone else is immunized?
Firstly, some of the diseases we vaccinate against aren’t caused by bugs we catch from other people. For instance, the bacteria that produce tetanus-causing toxins are found in soil and dust. Secondly, many vaccine-preventable diseases, such as measles, still circulate elsewhere in the world. All it takes is for one traveller or visitor to unsuspectingly bring the bug home to potentially cause an outbreak, particularly among groups that don’t practise immunization.

To keep a disease from spreading, a high percentage of people—about 95 percent in the case of measles—must be immunized. When vaccination rates are lower, the illness can spread, as happened recently in England with a measles outbreak due to low MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) immunization rates. These outbreaks may cause severe diseases, especially in non-immunized individuals.

Do vaccines weaken the immune system?
As far as doctors can tell, they don’t undermine it. Our immune systems are designed to handle multiple antigens (foreign viruses and bacteria) at the same time. For instance, in the average day, a baby may take in far more antigens than those found in childhood shots by putting toys in his mouth and eating food. Also, as vaccine technology improves (newer generation vaccines contain more refined antigens than earlier versions), they’re less likely to cause side-effects, such as fever.

While some critics claim there’s a connection between vaccination and the surge in asthma rates, researchers who have looked at immunizations and asthma haven’t found any link. While more research is needed, diet and exposure to germs and parasites—which have also changed over the past 20 or 30 years—are more likely culprits in the increase of asthma.

What are the standard vaccines my child should get?
Today, babies across Canada are routinely immunized against diphtheria, pertussis (whooping cough), tetanus, polio, Haemophilus influenzae type B (Hib), measles, mumps, and rubella. Also, Hepatitis B, varicella (chicken pox), meningococcal, pneumococcal and influenza vaccines, which parents had to pay for not long ago, are now covered by public health programs.

According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, there are 13 vaccine-preventable diseases your baby should be protected against.

  1. Diphtheria can cause serious breathing problems, can damage your child's heart and nervous system, and can cause paralysis. 
  2. Tetanus is a disease that most people think of if they step on a rusty nail. Tetanus is also found in dirt, manure and human stool. If tetanus gets into an open cut, it can cause muscle spasms, convulsions and death. 
  3. Pertussis (Whooping Cough) can turn into severe coughing spells, choking and vomiting. It can last for weeks or months, and may even cause death. It is most dangerous when your baby is under six months old. 
  4. Polio attacks your child's nervous system and can permanently paralyze muscles or even cause death. 
  5. Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib) can cause meningitis—an infection of the lining around your child's spinal cord and brain. It can also cause pneumonia, swelling in the back of the throat, and death. 
  6. Measles can cause a rash, high fever, cough, runny nose and red eyes for your child that could last from one to two weeks. Measles can also cause pneumonia, convulsions, deafness, brain damage and death. 
  7. Mumps can cause a fever, headache, and swollen, painful cheeks and neck. It could make your child deaf or cause meningitis. In rare cases, mumps can affect future ability to have children. 
  8. Rubella (German measles) causes a fever, rash and swollen glands. Rubella contracted in pregnancy can cause blindness, deafness and even death of the fetus. 
  9. Varicella (Chicken pox) causes a fever and an itchy rash of blisters that form scabs. In some children, chicken pox causes severe skin infections (like flesh-eating disease), scars, pneumonia, brain damage or death. 
  10. Hepatitis B affects the liver and can sometimes cause liver cancer or other long-term serious liver problems for your child. 
  11. Pneumococcal disease can cause pneumococcal meningitis, pneumonia, ear and blood infections. It could make your child deaf or cause brain damage. 
  12. Meningococcal disease can cause meningitis or a blood infection and can be fatal. 
  13. Influenza (the flu) is a common respiratory infection that begins in your child's nose and throat. Influenza can be serious—especially for infants and young children. If your child has influenza complications, she may have difficulty breathing and could develop pneumonia.

Note: In some provinces, the rotavirus vaccine is also covered. Rotavirus is the most common cause of gastroenteritis (“stomach flu”), and causes vomiting diarrhea and, potentially, dehydration.

TIP: Use the PHAC’s immunization tool as a reference to help you keep track of when your baby needs her next round of shots. Simply enter your province or territory and the date of birth.