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Childhood immunisations

This factsheet is for parents who would like information about immunisations for their child in the UK. Advice in other countries may be different.

Immunisation (also called vaccination) is a way of helping to protect your child against specific infectious diseases.

About childhood immunisations

Immunity is your body’s defence system against infectious diseases. Babies are born with some immunity (to bacteria and viruses that cover their skin, nose, throat and intestines) that will last throughout their lifetime. This is called innate or non-specific immunity.

Your child’s body also needs to learn and remember how to develop his or her own antibodies (proteins produced by the immune system) to fight against specific bacteria and viruses as he or she comes into contact with them. This is called acquired immunity. There are two different ways that your child can acquire immunity.

  • Passive immunity. This is protection (from antibodies) that is passed from one person to another. This is usually from mother to baby across the placenta but sometimes from the transfusion of blood. Passive immunity is temporary and will only last for a few weeks or months.
  • Active immunity. This is protection that is produced by your child’s immune system. It usually develops from the disease itself or by vaccination.

Vaccines contain a small part of the bacteria or virus that causes a disease. This stimulates your child’s immune system, resulting in the production of antibodies in the same way as an infection, but without causing a full-blown disease. Vaccines are a safe way to ensure your child develops his or her own antibodies to a particular infection. Vaccines are made using:

  • dead viruses or bacteria
  • inactivated toxin from a virus or bacterium
  • a weakened form of a live virus or bacterium (called a live vaccine)
  • parts of a virus or bacterium, but not the whole organism (called component vaccine)

Animation - How bacterial vaccines work

Why immunise?

All of the infections that are in the childhood immunisation programme can develop into serious illnesses and have the potential to cause disability or death. Immunising your child means that he or she is protected from these serious diseases and their potentially devastating effects. Many of the diseases that your child can be immunised against have no cure so vaccination can prevent any unnecessary illness.

If most children are immunised, then the risk of infection in the community is significantly reduced and even unvaccinated children are at much less risk of catching the disease. This is called 'herd immunity'.

Some people argue that there is no longer any need to immunise children. Diseases such as polio, for example, are now almost never seen in the UK. However, these diseases haven't yet disappeared and if your child comes into contact with someone with the disease, either in the UK or abroad, then he or she is likely to catch it.

If more people choose not to immunise their children, then the number of children at risk of catching a disease will increase and outbreaks of the disease will occur. In the UK, many diseases are rarely seen because of the high rate of childhood immunisation.

Immunisations offered in the UK

Vaccines given routinely to children in the UK protect against:

The following vaccines are given selectively.

  • Tuberculosis (TB). The Bacillus Calmette-Guérin (BCG) vaccine is now given to children in areas with a high rate of TB or who have a parent or grandparent from a country with a high rate of TB.
  • Hepatitis B. Children who live with parents who have hepatitis B or have regular blood transfusions should be vaccinated.
  • Chickenpox. A vaccine is recommended for children who have a family member whose immune system isn’t able to fight disease as well as it should, for example, if they have leukaemia or if they have a parent who’s having chemotherapy.

For some immunisations, your baby will need a course of vaccines to build up his or her defences. Booster vaccines are needed to 'top up' immunity for pre-school children and teenagers.

Immunisations explained

DTaP/IPV/Hib vaccine

The DTaP/IPV/Hib vaccine protects babies against five different diseases.

  • D – diphtheria
  • T – tetanus
  • aP – acellular pertussis (whooping cough)
  • IPV – polio
  • Hib – Haemophilus influenzae type B

Pneumococcal conjugate vaccine (PCV)

PCV protects against some strains of pneumococcal infection, which can cause diseases such as pneumonia, blood poisoning (septicaemia) and meningitis.

Meningococcal C (MenC) conjugate vaccine

The MenC vaccine protects against the bacterium that causes a severe form of blood poisoning (septicaemia) and/or meningitis. Your child can have it at the same time as the DTaP/IPV/Hib vaccine. It’s given as a separate injection.

Measles/mumps/rubella (MMR) vaccine

The MMR vaccine protects against measles, mumps and rubella. Stories in the media have raised concerns about a possible link between the MMR vaccine, autism and bowel disease. However, there is a great deal of scientific evidence from around the world that shows no connection between these conditions and the MMR vaccine. There’s also a lot of research to prove the safety and effectiveness of the MMR vaccine.

Bacille Calmette-Guérin (BCG) vaccine

The BCG vaccine protects against tuberculosis.

Your child will have a skin test, called a Mantoux. If the reaction is positive, it suggests he or she already has immunity and will not need the BCG injection.

Hepatitis B vaccine

Hepatitis B vaccine is usually given only to those children who are most likely to catch the disease, such as those who have a parent with hepatitis B.

Human papilloma virus (HPV) vaccine

Girls aged 12 to 13 are now routinely given the HPV vaccine. It protects against the two main viruses that cause cervical cancer.

UK immunisation schedule

The following table shows when to immunise your child against each disease.

Age Vaccine Type of injection Stage of vaccine course
2 months DTaP/IPV/Hib 5-in-1 injection First dose
  PCV Single First dose
3 months DTaP/IPV/Hib 5-in-1 Second dose
  Men C Single First dose
4 months DTaP/IPV/Hib 5-in-1 Third dose
  Men C Single Second dose
  PCV Single Second dose
12 months Hib/Men C Single Booster
13 months MMR 3-in-1 First dose
  PCV Single Booster
3 years and 4 months to 5 years MMR 3-in-1 Booster
  DTaP/IPV 4-in-1 Booster
12 to 13 years (girls) HPV Single Three doses given over six months
13 to 18 years Td/IPV Single Booster

 

How are immunisations given?

Immunisations or vaccines are given by injection, usually into the muscle in the upper arm or thigh.

When to delay immunisation

If your child is in good health and due for immunisation, you shouldn't delay having a vaccine.

A vaccine won't be given if your child has a fever when the injection is due. The vaccine could worsen the fever. Also your child's current illness could make it difficult to identify any side-effects to the vaccine. Your GP or nurse will usually examine your child and re-arrange the appointment if your child is too unwell to have the injection.

If you have any concerns about a particular vaccine, talk to your GP, practice nurse or health visitor.

Your child won't be given live vaccines, such as MMR and BCG, if he or she:

  • has a weakened immune system because of a serious condition, such as HIV/AIDS, or because he or she is taking medicines that suppress his or her immune system
  • has had a serious allergic reaction to a previous dose of the vaccine or to antibiotics that may have been added to the vaccine

Speak to your GP if your child has any condition affecting his or her immune system.

Don't delay getting your child immunised if he or she:

  • has a minor illness, such as a cough or cold
  • has already had an illness similar to that covered by a combined vaccine (for example, if your child has had mumps, he or she should still have the MMR vaccine)
  • is being treated with antibiotics, topical steroids or replacement corticosteroids
  • was a premature or very small baby, or jaundiced after birth
  • is being breastfed or if the child’s mother is pregnant
  • has a stable neurological condition, such as cerebral palsy or Down’s syndrome
  • has asthma, hay fever or eczema
  • is over the immunisation age recommended in the schedule
  • has a family history of side-effects to a vaccine, inflammatory bowel disease or autism

Side-effects of immunisations

Side-effects are the unwanted but mostly mild and temporary effects of a successful immunisation. Side-effects of a vaccine may include:

  • some redness and swelling at the injection site
  • a raised temperature (above 37.5°C but below 39°C)
  • irritability

You can help to lower your child's temperature and relieve any discomfort by:

  • giving your child liquid paracetamol or ibuprofen – always read the patient information that comes with the medicine and if you have any questions, ask your pharmacist for advice
  • removing some clothes and blankets to keep them cool

Severe reactions

A severe reaction to a vaccine is very rare. You should seek urgent medical attention if your child:

  • has a very high temperature (over 39°C)
  • has a fit – this is called a febrile convulsion
  • develops a rash
  • finds it difficult to breathe
  • feels very lethargic
  • cries inconsolably which may be high-pitched and unusual

Is immunisation safe?

Health professionals recognise that routine immunisation is the best defence against potentially dangerous diseases and it’s a safe way to ensure protection. All vaccines must be thoroughly tested to make sure they are safe and effective. Once they have been licensed, their safety is continuously monitored and any side-effects that are discovered can be assessed further.

 

Produced by Dylan Merkett, Bupa Health Information team, June 2012.

For answers to frequently asked questions on this topic, see FAQs.

For sources and links to further information, see Resources.


  • This information was published by Bupa's Health Information Team and is based on reputable sources of medical evidence. It has been reviewed by appropriate medical or clinical professionals. Photos are only for illustrative purposes and do not reflect every presentation of a condition. The content is intended only for general information and does not replace the need for personal advice from a qualified health professional. For more details on how we produce our content and its sources, visit the about our health information page.

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