Immunisation

Page last updated: 07 September 2017

Immunisation is the most significant public health intervention in the last 200 years, providing a safe and effective way to prevent the spread of many diseases that cause hospitalisation, serious ongoing health conditions and sometimes death.

Since the introduction of vaccination for children in Australia in 1932, deaths from vaccine-preventable diseases have fallen by 99 per cent, despite a threefold increase in the Australian population over that period. Worldwide, it has been estimated that immunisation programs prevent approximately three million deaths each year.

Immunisation is critical for the health of children and the wider community. For immunisation to provide the greatest benefit, a sufficient number of people need to be vaccinated to halt the spread of bacteria and viruses that cause disease - this is known as herd immunity or community immunity. The proportion of the population that has to be immune to interrupt disease transmission differs for each vaccine preventable disease, but is around 90 per cent for most diseases. For a highly infectious disease like measles, this is up to 95 per cent of the population. This emphasises the need to stay vigilant and ensure high coverage rates are achieved, not only at the national level, but also at the local level.

Australia has a strong and internationally recognised National Immunisation Program (NIP), with childhood vaccination rates over 90 per cent. This high rate of immunisation helps to maintain community immunity, especially for those who are too young to be immunised or those that are not able to be immunised for medical reasons. Without community immunity, rare diseases will become common again, causing more illness and deaths.

The NIP is a joint Commonwealth and state and territory initiative that aims to maintain, and where possible increase, national immunisation coverage rates to reduce the incidence of vaccine-preventable diseases in the Australian community. The NIP provides free vaccines against 17 diseases (including shingles) for eligible people. For information about the NIP and the NIP schedule, visit the Immunise Australia website.

From July 2017, the Australian Government has provided ongoing access to free catch up vaccines equivalent to those received in early childhood for all young people up to the age of 19 years and refugees and humanitarian entrants of any age.

On 13 August 2017, the Australian Government launched the ‘Get the facts about immunisation’ campaign to support expectant parents, and those with children under the age of 5 years, by explaining the benefits of childhood vaccination, addressing misconceptions and encouraging timely completion of the childhood immunisation schedule. The campaign can be accessed on the Department of Health website.

Family assistance payments linked to immunisation
Families’ eligibility to receive family assistance payments such as Family Tax Benefit Part A Supplement, Child Care Benefit and Child Care Rebate is linked to their child’s immunisation status. Only families who fully immunise their children, are on a recognised immunisation catch up schedule, or have an approved medical exemption can receive those family assistance payments. Vaccination objection will no longer be a valid exemption.

Families can check their child’s immunisation status at the Australian Immunisation Register.

For further information on child care assistance and family payments please go to the Department of Human Services website.

Safety of immunisation
The safety and effectiveness of vaccines has been extensively researched and considered by the relevant regulatory authorities all over the world. The overwhelming body of medical and scientific evidence supports the promotion of vaccination for the prevention of potentially crippling, debilitating and deadly diseases in the Australian population.

Safety testing is a key component of vaccine development and use. All vaccines used in Australia are thoroughly tested for safety and efficacy. In development they are rigorously tested on thousands of people in progressively larger clinical trials. They are not used in Australia until they have been approved for use by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) to ensure they meet strict safety guidelines and are evaluated to ensure they are effective, comply with strict manufacturing and production standards, and have a good safety record.

Vaccines remain subject to testing after their introduction into general use through a variety of mechanisms, such as further clinical trials and surveillance of disease and vaccine adverse events. Australia has a national surveillance system, which includes reports of any adverse events following immunisation from state and territory systems as well as data sent directly from health professionals, consumers and vaccine companies. These reports are regularly reviewed by the TGA and referred as required to expert committees, such as the Advisory Committee on Vaccines, to ensure ongoing assessment of safety.

The Government has invested in the AusVaxSafety National Surveillance System. AusVaxSafety is a world-leading, national, active, enhanced, sentinel surveillance system capable of monitoring, detecting and providing real time feedback on potential safety signals due to serious or significant adverse events following immunisation with NIP vaccines.

AusVaxSafety builds on the routine national passive surveillance conducted by the TGA.

Vaccines, like other medicines, can have side effects. However, all vaccines in use in Australia provide benefits that greatly outweigh the small risk of an adverse event. The majority of side effects following immunisation are minor and short-lived, the most common being local reactions at the injection site, fever or tiredness. Serious side effects from vaccination are extremely rare.

Key resources
1. Immunise Australia website

2. Australian Immunisation Handbook 10th Edition (The Handbook), provides information on immunisation practice, new vaccines and vaccine preventable diseases in Australia.

3. Myths and Realities- responding to arguments against vaccination, examines some of the common arguments against immunisation to assist practitioners and parents make an informed decision about the benefits and risks of vaccination.

4. The Science of Immunisation: Question and Answers, produced by the Australian Academy of Science, an independent scientific body, aims to summarise and clarify understanding of the science of immunisation for non-specialist readers.

5. Understanding Childhood Immunisation is an easy to use guide for new parents on childhood immunisation in Australia. It includes general information about immunisation, information about the diseases that vaccines under the NIP provide protection against, and answers to commonly asked questions.

Reviewed on: 2 November 2017