Immunisation

Parents' views of the diseases

The immunisations offered to children in the United Kingdom provide high levels of protection against diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough, poliomyelitis (polio), haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib) (meningitis and epiglottitis) meningococcal C (meningitis and septicaemia), meningococcal B, pneumococcal disease (pneumonia and meningitis), measles, mumps and rubella (German measles). For this reason few parents of today's babies and young children have any direct personal experience of these once common diseases.  

The overwhelming majority of parents believe in immunisation for their children. We have however included here the views of a few parents who do not believe immunisation is right for their own child based on their personal beliefs. Their views represent a small proportion of the population.

Measles causes a rash, cough, runny nose, eye irritation and fever. There can also be diarrhoea, vomiting and abdominal pain. About 1 in 15 children with measles have complications, which include ear infection, pneumonia and fits (NHS 2015). A rare complication (about 1 in 1,000 cases - Encephalitis Society 2014) is inflammation of the brain (encephalitis), which can lead to permanent brain damage and can be fatal in children with a lowered immune system, for example, leukaemia.   

Mumps causes a fever, headache and swollen salivary glands in the cheeks and neck. At least 30% of cases in children have no symptoms [1]. Complications of symptomatic mumps include deafness, aseptic meningitis (infection of the membranes around the brain and spinal cord), inflammation of the testicles or ovaries, and inflammation of the pancreas.  

Rubella (German measles) is often a mild illness. But if a woman gets it while she is pregnant it could cause a miscarriage or her baby could be born with serious birth defects. (1 in 4 cases if rubella occurs in the first three months of pregnancy). Rubella is given as part of the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine to young children rather than in the teens, so that if a child caught the disease they can't pass it on to pregnant women. Once it became clear that immunisation at an early age would protect for many years, it was decided to immunise both girls and boys in order to stop the spread of rubella in children, and so gain herd immunity.

With these diseases, the more people who are not immunised the greater chance there is of both immunised and unimmunised children contracting the disease. 

One factor influencing parents' decisions about whether to immunise their child was how serious they perceived these diseases to be. 

The vast majority of parents knew these diseases could be serious and didn't want to risk the chance of their child getting a complication, nor did they want their child to be unwell when there were effective vaccines available to prevent this.

Parents who had heard first hand accounts of problems caused by diseases such as measles and mumps, were in favour of immunisation. Some had relatives who had been affected by the diseases before immunisations were available, and this had influenced their decisions. One mother said her neighbour's one-year-old son had had febrile convulsions from measles. Another said her own mother had gone deaf in one ear as a result of having mumps as a child. 

A few parents questioned why measles and mumps were considered to be such serious diseases now, when they themselves had them as a child and do not remember them as serious. One couple personally thought the government was suggesting that the diseases were more serious than they actually are to encourage parents to have the MMR vaccine. 

Another parent thought it was important not to scare parents in to having the immunisations but it was also important not to underestimate how serious these diseases could be. Before immunisations fortunately, most people had measles and mumps without serious complications. However, 1 in 15 children with measles had complications including earache, pneumonia and fits. 1 in 1000 had inflammation of the brain (encephalitis). When these rates are applied to the whole population, the complications of measles and mumps caused a serious number of hospital admissions and long-term disability.

A very small number of parents held a personal belief that if their child had a strong immune system, there was less chance of them being very ill or developing complications from these diseases. There is no evidence that a strong immune system in any way substitutes for the protection given by immunisations. While it is true that a child with an underlying health condition is more likely to have complications and/or die from measles, healthy children can be very ill too. Allowing them to catch the diseases means that they run the risk of complications. 

Last reviewed October 2015.
Last updated October 2015.

 

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