At-a-glance: The immunisation debate

Anti-vaxxer crackdown to save government half a billion dollars (Getty Images)

As doctors call for parents to immunise their kids, we take a look at the debate surrounding vaccination.

While doctors argue the benefits of immunisation far outweigh the risks, others remain firm in their stance against vaccines. But what is immunisation? And what are the arguments for and against the process?


Immunisation is the process of protecting a person against an illness or disease through the infection of micro-organisms. The vaccine is injected into the body to stimulate the immune system and to build a resistance against the disease. This resistance primes the body to detect and destroy future infections quickly and effectively.

Since their immune systems are still developing, children (especially infants) are most at risk of infections and therefore need several vaccinations to guard them against severe illnesses, doctors say.

The Australian Academy of Science says vaccines contain two main ingredients: antigens, which are designed to cause the immune system to produce a specific immune response; and adjuvants, which bolster the body's immune response.


The Australian Government recommends parents vaccinate their children against the following diseases:

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

For the full list, see the National Immunisation Program Schedule


The Department of Health and Ageing (DoHA) reports that the majority of Australians are supportive of immunisation.

However, there are a small number of parents who do not believe in the efficacy of vaccines in preventing diseases. Here are some arguments for and against immunisation:

1. 'Vaccines are unsafe and cause side effects'

Vaccines have reportedly caused side effects like seizures, fever, thrombocytopenia (temporary tendency to bruise easily), severe allergic reactions and encephalitis (from measles vaccines).

For example, the rotavirus vaccine Rotashield® was withdrawn from the market after it was found to increase intussusception (a rare bowel obstruction in infants). It was originally licensed in 1998 in the US.

Though immunisation can cause side effects like fevers, allergic reactions, pain or swelling, these occurrences are rare and are less severe than catching the disease itself, which can result in death. For example, only about three in every 10,000 children who have the MMR vaccine develop short-lived convulsions induced by fever.

Most parents believe that the benefits far outweigh the risks, and that having high levels of immunisation will mean the community at large will be protected from the disease. This protection is called “herd immunity” and is effective in eradicating infectious diseases like polio.

Before vaccines are registered in Australia by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA), they are subjected to rigorous testing in thousands of people. The DoHA says that the approval process can sometime take up to ten years. Once the vaccine is approved, it is continuously evaluated and reviewed.

2. 'Vaccines weaken the immune system'

Some parents worry that administering multiple vaccines can weaken their child's immune system, especially combination vaccines such as the measles, mumps, rubella and varicella (MMRV) vaccine.

All vaccines are tested under strict guidelines and there is no evidence suggesting that vaccines weaken or overwhelm the immune system, reports the DoHA. Children are exposed to foreign antigens every day when they play and eat. In contrast, vaccines only contain a small amount of antigens to stimulate the immune system and to protect against disease.

3. 'Vaccines go against my religion'

Some religious groups are concerned that vaccine ingredients contain animal products that go against their beliefs. For example, gelatin is derived from pork products, so some members of the Jewish and Islamic community are against vaccinations on religious grounds.

Both scholars of the Islamic Organisation for Medical Sciences and Jewish leaders have permitted the use of pork-derived additives for medicinal purposes.

4. 'Vaccines cause autism'

In 1998, researchers in the UK suggested that the MMR vaccine caused autism. They argued that the measles virus in the gut cause a new syndrome of Inflammatory Bowel Disease which in turn cause developmental disorders like autism.

The 1998 study was originally published in The Lancet, but many peer-reviewed studies have since concluded that there is no link between the MMR vaccine and autism.

Moreover, 10 of the 13 original authors published a statement in The Lancet stating that their 1998 study did not provide sufficient evidence. The Lancet has also retracted the original study.

For more facts on immunisation, visit the Department of Health and Ageing website.


Source SBS

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