Common questions about immunizations and immunity

What is immunity?

Think of immunity as armour against illness and disease.

Immunization prompts your child’s body to build immunity to – or “armour” against – certain diseases, before he or she is exposed to those diseases.

When your child is exposed to these diseases after being immunized, your child will be armed and able to fight them off, without getting sick. Without immunization, your child’s body will not have the immunity (or “armour”) it needs to fight off these diseases. Without the armour of immunization, your child is not protected from potentially deadly diseases.

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How do immunizations work?

When your child gets a vaccine, your child receives a minute amount of a weakened or killed form of a virus or bacteria. The exposure to this safe weakened or killed organism in the vaccine is just enough to cause your child’s immune system to respond, and naturally make what are called “antibodies.” These antibodies will recognize and attack the disease-causing virus or bacteria, should your child be exposed to it again after being immunized.

By contrast, if your child is exposed to a disease without being immunized, your child’s body will not have had the opportunity to make antibodies, which means your child will not be able to fight the disease-causing organism. In other words, without immunization, your child will be unarmed against these diseases.

Immunization is your child’s armour against disease.

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Isn’t natural immunity better than immunization/vaccines?

Immunization does prompt your child’s natural immune response.

Immunization prompts your child’s immune system to produce disease-fighting antibodies, which is a natural function of your child’s body. Immunization simply gives your child the opportunity to build these antibodies before being exposed to disease, and without getting the actual disease.

If your child is exposed to a disease after being immunized, your child will be armed and able to fight it off, without getting sick. Without immunization, your child’s body does not have the opportunity to build immunity to – or armour against – the disease.

Without the armour of immunization, your child is at risk of getting very sick.

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Are vaccination and immunization the same thing?

Vaccination and immunization are two words that mean the same thing. When you bring your child to be immunized, your child is given vaccine (usually by needle) that will protect them against certain diseases. This protection is often referred to as being immunized. By getting your child immunized with the recommended vaccines, you are arming your child against diseases.

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Do vaccines overwhelm the immune system?

Actually, quite the opposite! By prompting the immune system to do what it is naturally meant to do – develop antibodies that can fight disease and keep your child healthy – vaccines make your child’s immune system even stronger! It is natural for your child to be exposed to many different forms of bacteria and viruses every day, whether it be through eating, playing with others, touching their mouths, or even just crawling on the ground. By comparison, the minute amount of a weakened or killed form of a virus or bacteria that is contained in vaccines is controlled to ensure that your child gets just enough to prompt his or her immune system to respond as it is supposed to, without getting sick. The prompt causes your child’s body to naturally make what are called “antibodies.” These antibodies will recognize and attack disease-causing virus or bacteria, should your child be exposed to it again, after being immunized.

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Won’t a healthy diet and lifestyle alone be enough to protect my child from these diseases?

A healthy diet and lifestyle are important to your child’s overall health, but a healthy diet and lifestyle without immunization will not provide your child with any immunity to – or “armour” against – the diseases that can be prevented through immunization. Without immunization, your child’s body will not be prompted to develop the antibodies – the “armour” – it needs to be able to fight off diseases. No matter how healthy your child’s diet and lifestyle is, without immunization your child remains at risk for potentially deadly diseases. Think of immunizations as a key part of your child’s healthy lifestyle.

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How are homeopathic vaccines different than the recommended (routine) childhood immunizations/vaccines?

Homeopathic/naturopathic preparations or solutions (often called “nosodes”) are sometimes marketed as “vaccines or immunizations,” but, nosodes should actually not be considered an alternative to routine childhood immunizations. Health Canada has not approved nosodes as vaccinations or immunizations and, in fact, all homeopathic/naturopathic nosodes are required, by law, to be labelled with the statement “this product is not intended to be an alternative to vaccination.” It’s also important to remember that nosodes do not undergo the rigorous safety testing or surveillance that routine immunizations must undergo. Unfortunately, false marketing of nosodes has led to the spread of infectious diseases, including measles and whooping cough.

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What is Herd Immunity?

When you immunize your child, you are also helping to build your community’s defence against diseases. Simply: the more people immunized in your community, the less opportunity that disease has to spread in your community. The catch? For immunization to effectively arm your whole community against diseases, the majority of individuals in your community must be immunized. This is often called “Herd Immunity.”

To truly achieve Herd Immunity against infectious diseases, between 85% and 95% of people in the community need to be immunized, depending on the specific disease. Herd Immunity is important to the health of a community as a whole, and particularly to vulnerable people in a community who cannot be immunized themselves. These vulnerable people – including infants too young to yet be immunized, seniors, patients undergoing cancer treatment and transplant recipients – rely on those around them to be immunized to provide some degree of protection from disease. By getting your child immunized, you are arming your child against disease, and you are also helping to protect and defend your vulnerable neighbours and your community as a whole.

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Why can’t I rely on “Herd Immunity” to protect my child, instead of getting my child immunized?

If your child is able to be immunized, Herd Immunity is not an effective alternative to getting your child immunized. Herd Immunity doesn’t give a high enough level of individual protection to be considered a good alternative to getting immunized. Further, for certain diseases, Herd Immunity cannot exist. For example, Herd Immunity for tetanus doesn’t exists, because of its constant presence in the environment (e.g. in soil).

Herd Immunity is particularly important for those individuals in a community who cannot be immunized. These vulnerable people – including infants too young to yet be immunized, seniors, patients undergoing cancer treatment and transplant recipients – rely on those around them to be immunized, to provide them with some degree of protection from some of these diseases.

By getting your child immunized, you are arming your child against disease, and you are also helping to protect and defend your vulnerable neighbours and your community as a whole.

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Why should I immunize my child if the disease has been eradicated?

The only disease in the world that has been truly eradicated is smallpox. Every immunization included in the routine childhood immunization schedule protects against a disease that is still a real risk to your child. Without immunization, your child will not be immune to – or armed against – these diseases.

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Can my child still get the disease after they’ve been immunized?

This can happen, but very rarely. Immunization is very effective. Routine childhood immunizations will protect 90% to 100% of children who are immunized with all recommended doses, at the recommended ages and intervals (according to the routine immunization schedule). A child who doesn’t receive all of the recommended doses, or who doesn’t receive the doses at the recommended ages and stages, may not develop immunity as well as a child who receives all recommended doses according to the schedule. Everyone’s immune system responds slightly differently to vaccine. In rare cases, a child’s immune system may not mount the full immune response to vaccine. In these rare cases, the child may still be at risk of developing disease but, even if the disease does still develop, immunization will help reduce the severity of the disease.

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If vaccines are not 100% effective, why should I get my child vaccinated?

Most vaccines will protect between 90% and 100% of children who are immunized with all recommended doses, at the recommended ages and intervals (see Routine Schedule). On the other hand, without immunization, your child is 100% without protection – or “unarmed” – against these diseases. Without immunization, your child is facing potentially deadly diseases, without protection.

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Will the vaccine/immunization give my child the disease it's supposed to prevent?

No – your child cannot get the disease from the vaccine, or from being immunized. Some vaccines do not contain any live virus at all. And, the vaccines that do contain very tiny amounts of “live” virus are manufactured so that the virus is able to prompt your child’s natural immune response, but is not able to make your child get sick.

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Why do some vaccines have one dose and others have multiple doses?

Most vaccines need to be given more than once to build your child's immune system response. With each dose, the immune system response is more complete, meaning; each dose builds your child’s armour, until that shield of amour is complete. Complete armour is needed to fight these diseases. The routine immunization schedule is designed to ensure your child’s body builds the full protection by prompting the immune response at the most effective and safest ages and intervals. Multiple doses help your child build immunity armour that lasts.

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Does having multiple shots at one appointment put my child’s immune system at risk?

No, multiple immunization shots will not compromise or overwhelm your child’s immune system. In fact, research has confirmed that giving your child several routine immunizations at one appointment does not increase the risk of reaction at all. Only vaccines shown to be safe and effective when given together are given at the same time. Research has also shown that having your child immunized with multiple injections at one visit will also actually cause less pain than waiting a few days between each vaccine.

Remember: It is natural for your child to be exposed to many different forms of bacteria and viruses every day, whether through eating, playing with others, touching their mouths, or even just crawling on the ground. By comparison, the very tiny amount of a weakened or killed form of a virus or bacteria that is contained in a vaccine is just enough to prompt your child’s immune system to respond and build antibodies, without causing your child to actually get sick. These antibodies will recognize and attack disease-causing virus or bacteria, should your child be exposed to it again, after being immunized. Giving your child all of the vaccines at the age recommended does ensure your child’s health is best protected.

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Why should I follow the recommended immunization schedule?

Immunization works best when given at the right time as your child grows. The routine immunization schedule is designed to provide your child with the right protection, at the most effective and safest ages and intervals, building immunity that lasts. Additionally, some vaccines need to be given more than once to build your child's immune system. The spacing between these doses is important to your child’s health, and following the schedule will ensure the right spacing is maintained.

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Why does my child need to start getting their immunizations as early as two months old?

The routine immunization schedule is designed to provide your child with the right protection, at the best and safest ages and intervals, to build immunity that lasts. Your baby is very vulnerable to sickness. For example, the most deaths from pertussis (whooping cough) occur in babies less than six months of age. Immunization can protect your baby from these potentially deadly diseases. At two months of age, your baby can receive his or her first immunizations safely, and these first immunizations will be effective. Delaying your baby’s immunization will leave your baby at risk of disease.

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Can I use an alternate immunization schedule?

Unless it is necessary for medical reasons (and recommended by your doctor), delaying or altering your child’s immunization schedule isn’t recommended, as it will leave your child at risk for diseases. Immunization works best when given at the right time as your child grows. The routine immunization schedule is designed to provide your child with the right protection, at the most effective and safest ages and intervals, to build immunity that lasts. Additionally, some vaccines need to be given more than once to build your child's immune system. The spacing between these doses is important to your child’s health, and following the schedule will ensure the right spacing is maintained. Altering your child’s immunization schedule can leave your child at risk.

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Does my child HAVE to get all the vaccines described in the immunization schedule? All at once?

Your consent for all immunizations is required before your child is immunized. Your child’s immunization schedule is your decision, but it is important to remember that immunization works best when given at the right time as your child grows. The routine immunization schedule is designed to provide your child with the right protection, at the most effective and safest ages and intervals, to build immunity that lasts. Altering your child’s immunization schedule can leave your child at risk for disease.

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Why do vaccines have to be given by needle? Is there another method?

Most routine childhood immunizations are delivered by injection*. The location (on the body) that the needle is injected, and the way your child’s nurse administers the needle, is specific for each vaccine, based on research into the most effective and safe way of giving each vaccine.

*Exceptions:

Rotavirus vaccine is given by mouth.

FluMist – a seasonal influenza vaccine is administered as a nasal spray.

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What are some ways to reduce pain or anxiety for my child, when it comes to immunizations or needles?

It’s okay, and normal, for both parents and children to be nervous about needles. Sometimes, parents are even more nervous than their children! You know your child best, which makes you an expert in preparing your child for life experiences, and making the experiences as positive as possible. This includes your child’s immunization appointments. For a few extra tips that, in our experience, can help you and your child before and during the appointment, click here.

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Does breastfeeding give my baby protection from diseases? If so, why immunize?

Although breastfeeding offers protection against some infections, such as colds, ear infections and diarrhea, breastfeeding does not protect infants from all the specific diseases we can prevent through immunization. The minimal temporary protection against these diseases which can be passed on from a mother who is already fully immunized herself while breastfeeding, will disappear shortly after the mother discontinues breastfeeding. This immunity is passive, and does not last. This means that, unlike immunity from vaccines, the passive immunity from breastfeeding does not prompt your baby’s own immune response, meaning your baby does not build his or her own armour against these diseases through breastfeeding. To build an armour against disease, your baby must be immunized.

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Are immunizations mandatory/required by law in Canada?

Immunization is not required by law in Canada; however, under Alberta’s Public Health Act, unimmunized children (and adults) can be ordered to stay home (from school, work and any activities outside of the home) for specified periods of time after being exposed to a vaccine-preventable illness. For example, if an unimmunized child is exposed to measles in a school setting, that child will be required to stay home from school and all activities out of the home for a full 21 days after the date of exposure to the measles case.

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Are vaccines free?

Yes, all immunizations included in Alberta’s Routine Childhood Immunization Schedule are offered to children who live, work or go to school in Alberta, free of charge.

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