Baby held by mother looking at child health nurse

Vaccination – Myths and Realities

Immunisation is one of those topics which generate a lot of passion. One of the major reasons why it creates such debate is that there is so much conflicting information about it.

Separating fact from fiction is an important starting point for parents to make informed decisions around their child’s immunisations.

This article is written to help you understand what science and evidence says about immunisation and the reasons why it is so important.

Immunisation Works By

Stimulating the baby’s immune system to respond as if an infection is actually present. But this is only in a very mild way, and importantly, without developing any of the symptoms of the disease. The baby then creates antibodies and memory cells to protect them from future infection.

If, in the future, the baby’s immune system is exposed to a live germ or toxin of a vaccine-preventable disease, their immune system responds by killing it.

The viruses or bacteria which are in vaccines cannot cause illness and are altered considerably from their original state.

  • They are generally dead or weakened versions.
  • They are inactivated so their toxins cannot cause problems.
  • The surface of the germ has been changed.

What We Know to be True

  • Vaccination is the safest and most effective form of protection against vaccine-preventable diseases.
  • Tetanus, diphtheria, haemophilus Influenzae type b, polio, congenital rubella and newly acquired hepatitis B are now almost never seen or are extremely rare.
  • Smallpox was eradicated because of careful surveillance programs and vaccinations.
  • Most parents want to do the right thing by their child and not deliberately expose them to potentially harmful substances.
  • Immunisation is a confusing topic and it’s hard to understand all the facts.
  • There can be side effects to immunisation. But these are generally mild and don’t need any specific treatment.
  • Parents worry about vaccine safety and effectiveness.
  • Some parents believe that they don’t need to immunise their children anymore because the risk of disease is too low.
  • The risk of illness and complications from childhood diseases is higher than the risk of reactions to the vaccines.
  • Research, study, science and evidence all support immunisation unless there is a specific reason or contraindication why not.
  • Immunisations save lives, reduce the risk of disease and prolong life.
  • Getting the right information at the right time helps parents make the right decision for their baby

Myth – If My Baby is Strong and Healthy – They Won’t Get Sick

Fact – Every baby is at risk of contracting an infectious disease, no matter how healthy and well they are. Infections caused by viruses, bacteria or fungus can quickly multiply and invade even the healthiest body.

The best defence against infection with a childhood communicable disease is immunity. This is created when specialised cells and chemicals fight infection.

Immunity means the next time someone is exposed to the same invading organisms, their body’s immune system “remembers” and they are protected.

Myth – If I’m Breastfeeding My Baby is Safe

Fact – Pregnancy and breastfeeding do provide some level of protection but this is not absolute. Pregnancy benefits only last for around 8-12 weeks after birth and are not long acting. This is why t is so critical that immunisation events start on time. A baby’s immune system is still immature and they are still vulnerable to infection. Until they have had a chance to build immunity through immunisation, all babies are at risk.

The placenta also offers a certain level of protection but the maternal-foetal barrier relies on a mother’s immunity, either through her own vaccination or exposure to the particular disease. If her own antibody level is low, then her baby won’t be as protected as if her own levels were higher. –that’s why it’s now recommended that Mum and Dad and whanau seek advice about re-immunisation during the later stages of pregnancy.

Myth – Combining Vaccines Overloads a Baby’s Immune System

Fact – There is no science to support this theory. The immune system is designed to deal with multiple organisms every day. In fact, there is evidence to support the view that the greater the number of antigens, the healthier a child’s immune response may be. This is thought to be why children who grow up in households where pets live as well are at less risk of developing asthma and allergic disease.

Combining vaccines also means that children don’t need to get as many needles.

The other concern with delaying “vaccines”/baby-care/health/immunisation/further-information is that children are then at risk of contracting disease. Timing and spacing of vaccines is very important. Missing one or delaying the time gap between them can mean that the child is not as protected as they would otherwise be. When given at the earliest possible time, the benefits of vaccination are at their peak.

Immunisation is not effective straightaway. It can take 1-3 weeks for vaccinations to work and for the immune response to be fully activated.

Myth- Vaccines Cause Autism

Fact – In 1998 some British research was published which claimed that there was a link between the Measles, Mumps, Rubella vaccine, Inflammatory Bowel Disease, as well as Autism. But this was never proven and in fact, the lead author was found guilty of serious professional misconduct. The researchers were discredited and their findings retracted.

There has never been a proven link between the MMR vaccine and autism.

Myth -Vaccines Cause Sudden Infant Death Syndrome

Fact – This is not true and not supported by science. We still do not fully understand the cause for SIDS; however, we do know about ways to reduce the risk. Check for specific recommendations.

Myth – My Baby is More at Risk of an Allergic Reaction to the Vaccine Than the Disease Itself

Fact – Childhood disease such as whooping cough (pertussis) and measles can be extremely serious and their complications can cause death. Rarely, a child will have an allergic or anaphylactic reaction to a vaccine and the vast majority of these rare reactions happen in the first twenty minutes post immunisation. This is why it’s important to be monitored for 20 minutes after any vaccine.

All vaccination providers are trained in anaphylactic management. When there is an adverse event following immunisation the vaccination provider needs to report this to the Ministry Of Health (MOH).

Myth -There’s No Point in Vaccination Because it Doesn’t Always Work

Fact – It is still possible but much less likely to contract a disease even after being immunised for it. But generally the illness is not as severe and the symptoms reduced. Importantly, the risks of side effects are considerably reduced. Chickenpox for example, can lead to very serious complications.

No vaccine provides a 100% guarantee of effectiveness. But the risk of infection can be as high as 100% if there is an outbreak of a communicable disease and an individual is not protected by vaccination.

Myth – Adults Don’t Need Vaccinations

Fact – Adults need vaccinations too, for diseases such as influenza and boosters for whooping cough and tetanus. If you are considering going overseas, speak with your GP about the countries you are visiting and what diseases are endemic there. Check here for specific information. It’s also important for families to prepare for the birth of a new whanau member by checking their status.

Herd Immunity – What Is It?

This means that the more people who are vaccinated in a community, the greater the level of protection to everyone. The higher the overall level of immunity, the less spread of infection. Young babies who are too young to have received their primary course of immunisations are at risk of developing childhood disease. So are people who do not have the protection of a healthy immune system. Chemotherapy and diseases which affect the immune system mean that individuals cannot fight off infection as effectively as others.

We all have a social responsibility to protect others. The higher the rate of protection in a community, the safer everyone is.


  • Every vaccine in NZ is thoroughly tested to be safe, effective and beneficial.
  • Vaccination is available from GP surgeries, outreach immunisations including some public health nurses and some WCTO providers.
  • You will never need to pay for a doctor’s consultation for your child and will never pay for a vaccine which is on the national schedule.
  • Trials and surveillance of vaccines is ongoing and continually checking for adverse reactions.


This article was written by Jane Barry, child health nurse, midwife and director of and contributed to by Karen Magrath – Plunket National Advisor for well child and parenting.

Last updated June 2015

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