When I was in Grade One, the lively, friendly little boy who sat behind me stopped coming to school. He got Polio, and he never came back.

I never knew if Billy had died or if he lived the rest of his life in an iron lung. That same year, 1954, the rest of us received the first Polio vaccine, and I had taken my first step towards a career in Public Health Nursing.

It can be very easy to forget, in today’s North America, that infectious diseases – such as diphtheria, measles, rubella and whooping cough – were once a huge fear for parents. Certain children affected by such illnesses would die; many more would become permanently disabled. Blindness, deafness, paralysis or brain damage would follow the “childhood disease”.

Vaccines have changed all that. However, the viruses and bacteria that caused most of those diseases are STILL around – making immunization just as important to our children’s health in 2006 as it was back in 1954.

In my work as a Public Health Nurse, I have heard a lot of questions about the safety of vaccines. I have also spent a lot of time addressing these concerns to alleviate worries and help parents understand the importance of immunization.

The questions that I hear the most often include:

What about the side effects of vaccines?

Apart from extremely rare allergic reactions, any side effects are usually temporary and mild, such as slight fever, some swelling or a rash. Health care providers will ask if anyone receiving vaccine has allergies or has reacted to any immunization in the past.

Is it safe for a child to receive more than one type of vaccine at one time?

Yes it is. A child’s immune system can respond to thousands of different germs every day through eating, drinking and playing. The vaccines recommended for children use only a small part of this system. Far from overwhelming the immune system, vaccines strengthen it by giving it the ability to fight against more diseases.

Wouldn’t a child receive better immunity by actually getting the disease?

To take this approach is to put your child at serious risk for, at the very least, preventable suffering; at worst, permanent disability or death.

Vaccines challenge the immune system in the same way that bacteria or viruses do, but without causing the full-blown illness.

For more information about immunizations, contact your local health unit or visit the or websites. The BC NurseLine can also be accessed 24 hours a day, seven days a week toll-free at 1-866-215-4700. Deaf or hearing-impaired callers can dial 1-866-889-4700.

Translation services are also available on request.

Immunization is among the most important health care discoveries in modern history. Keeping your child’s shots, as well as your own, up to date will help to protect not only your family, but the whole community.