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February 6, 2020 • read

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Baby vaccination in Canada: What you need to know

If you’re Canadian and over the age of 25, chances are you had chickenpox as a kid. Maybe you have a scar from it, or remember wearing oven mitts to stop you from scratching. Many Canadian millennials, however, have never had chickenpox, because in 2000, Health Canada started a chickenpox vaccination campaign. Vaccines protect us from some of the most harmful diseases out there — including chickenpox (and later shingles). You only have to look at countries without well-established vaccination programs to see the importance of vaccinations, and the number of deaths they prevent. But there are some minimal risks associated with getting vaccinated. We’re looking at the benefits and side effects to help you make the best decision about vaccinating your baby.

Types of vaccinations

The idea behind vaccines is to introduce safe substances into your body that mimic the appearance of a virus or bacteria. This enables your immune system to recognize them later on in life and react appropriately (and aggressively) to the disease. There are a few different types of vaccines. Some, called recombinant vaccines and toxoid vaccines, use only specific parts of a virus, germ, or their by-products to protect you from the disease. But Canadian children are more likely to get either an attenuated live vaccine or an inactivated vaccine (more on these below), which can be delivered either orally or by injection.

An attenuated live vaccine contains a weakened version of a disease. This means that the pathogen that causes the disease is “alive” when it’s injected into you, but not in a form where it’s able to give you the disease. Your body still sees the pathogen as a threat, however, which prompts your immune system into developing antibodies against any future infections from the disease. This type of vaccine is highly effective and usually gives you lifetime protection against the disease. An example of an attenuated live vaccine is the MMR vaccine which protects against measles, mumps, and rubella.

Inactivated vaccines contain a dead version of a disease or pathogen. Your immune system recognizes the dead virus as a threat and responds, but without the risk of developing the disease. The drawback with inactivated vaccines is that they are less effective than attenuated live vaccines and usually require multiple booster shots to provide full immunity. 

Baby vaccinations in Canada

Vaccination schedules vary slightly across the country, but most newborn babies go for their first vaccine at the two-month mark. This first vaccine is a combined shot that protects against diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis (whooping cough), polio and haemophilus influenzae (type B). They’ll also receive two additional vaccines at this appointment, one for pneumonia and one for rotavirus. They’ll take the rotavirus vaccine orally, the other two as shots. So even though they’ll get three vaccines, your little one will “only” have two needles at their first vaccination appointment. A tip to make the process easier? Breastfeeding during the injection helps them deal with the pain. If you’re not breastfeeding, giving your baby a tiny bit of sugar water can help.

After this first set of vaccinations, the typical schedule is at four months, six months, 12 months, 15 months, and 18 months. Except for the flu shot, which both you and your child should get annually (once they’re over six months). Your little one will get a break from needles from 18 months until they turn four. For exact timing, check out Health Canada’s province or territory-specific vaccination schedule.

Symptoms after baby vaccinations

Occasionally, some babies have mild reactions to vaccines. Soreness, redness, or swelling at the injection site are the most common side effects. Some kids also get a low-grade fever. Any of these side effects will likely make your child cranky or upset. Feel free to cuddle and breast or bottle feed your child as usual to comfort them. Giving them the appropriate dose of infant Advil or Tylenol will also bring their fever down, and ease any soreness. 

Serious side effects of vaccines

Although new parents often worry about them, serious side effects of vaccines are extremely rare. Anaphylaxis, which is a severe allergic reaction, happens somewhere in the range of one in 100,000 to one in a million. The good news is that it is quite treatable and it usually happens almost immediately. This is why your healthcare provider will ask you to hang around for 15 minutes after baby gets their shots.

In extremely rare cases (about one in one million), vaccinations might trigger Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS). This is an autoimmune condition that can cause muscle weakness, numbness, and even paralysis. But it usually goes away after 4 weeks. While it might seem that no vaccine is worth risking paralysis (however temporary), the risk of getting GBS from a disease is higher than the risk of getting it from the vaccination for that disease. So your baby will be safer from GBS with a vaccine than without. 

When to avoid vaccination

While vaccinations can be nerve wracking, there’s usually no reason to avoid vaccinating your baby. The baby vaccination schedule in Canada was developed specifically with the best interests of children in mind. It takes into account when their immune systems can handle vaccinations, and at what age they’re most at risk of contracting certain diseases. Even if your baby is allergic to some of the common ingredients in vaccines, your doctor will often be able to recommend an alternative. That being said, there are reasons some children shouldn’t be vaccinated. These include:

  • Having developed GBS immediately following a previous vaccination
  • If your child is immunocompromised (speak to your doctor for more specifics)
  • If your child currently has a very high fever (this isn’t dangerous, but if the child has a reaction to the vaccine it can be hard to tell. Once their fever subsides it’s safe to vaccinate them).

Is vaccination mandatory in Canada?

Vaccines are highly effective, and protect us from diseases that cause a number of serious complications, including death. But even though it’s safe, immunization isn’t mandatory in Canada. While children in Ontario and New Brunswick have to provide proof of immunization in order to register for school, they can opt out for medical or ideological reasons.

Vaccinations and “herd immunity”

Some parents wrongly assume they don’t have to vaccinate their children because of “herd immunity.” While living in an area where most people are immunized against measles, does offer some protection for example, if you’re exposed to the virus and aren’t vaccinated, chances are high that you’ll get it. And for a disease like tetanus, where the pathogen isn’t transmitted from person to person but from soil, herd immunity doesn’t apply. If your child hasn’t been vaccinated and they’re exposed, they’re at risk of developing tetanus, which is frequently fatal. Herd immunity as a concept can reduce the transmission of particular diseases in some cases. But it doesn’t protect individuals if they are exposed to those viruses.

While the idea of giving your precious little monkey a needle probably isn’t your favourite, there’s good reason to do it: mass vaccination programs have saved millions of lives, and that’s just in the last decade. Vaccines help your immune system work better — essentially they teach your body how to protect itself from deadly diseases. While some people aren’t able to get them in rare cases, vaccines are overwhelmingly the right choice when it comes to protecting your child.

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