Making sure your child gets all their lifesaving vaccines

UNICEF experts answer parents’ questions on childhood vaccinations

UNICEF South Asia
mother and baby
14 July 2022

Good health is one of the greatest blessings a parent can give to their child. 

And childhood vaccines are the safest way to keep children healthy, happy and protected against many dangerous, but vaccine preventable, diseases.  

But heartbreakingly, as life was disrupted over the last few years, millions of children in South Asia have missed their routine vaccine doses. This has left them at risk of devastating diseases, like polio and measles, that could harm their health for life and even shorten their lives. 

As parents, we know that your child’s health is your top priority. That’s why we’ve asked our health experts some of the most common questions from parents around childhood vaccines and what to do if you think your child may have missed a dose. 

“Why should I vaccinate my child?” 

When you vaccinate your child, you are not only protecting them from dangerous diseases, but also the children around them.  

For over two centuries, vaccines have safely reduced the spread of devastating diseases like polio, measles and smallpox, helping children grow up healthy and happy. 

Even before COVID-19, vaccines saved more than five lives every single minute – preventing up to three million deaths a year. 

Vaccination provides children with benefits that can last their lifetimes. By being protected against life threatening diseases, vaccinated children do better at school and grow up stronger and to a healthier weight than non-vaccinated children. 

Vaccinating children also has cost-saving benefits for you and your family. By protecting children against getting sick in the first place, families reduce the financial burden associated with sickness, such as parental time off work and the costs of medical treatment. 

“What are vaccines and how do they work?” 

Vaccines are products given to children and adults to protect them against serious and often deadly diseases.  

Vaccines work by preparing your immune system to fight an attack by bacteria or viruses in the future. They expose your body to a weakened form, or inactive part, of a bacteria or virus, triggering an immune response, so that if one day you encounter these germs, your immune system will already know how to fight them. 

By stimulating your body’s natural defenses, they prepare your body to fight the disease faster and more effectively. 

A child receives routine vaccinations in Afghanistan.
A child receives routine vaccinations in Afghanistan.

“What diseases do vaccines prevent?” 

Vaccines protect your child against serious illnesses like polio, which can cause paralysis; measles, which can cause brain swelling and blindness; and tetanus, which causes painful muscle contractions and difficulty in sucking and breathing, especially in newborns.  

A list of the most common vaccines and the diseases they prevent can be found here.

“How many childhood vaccines are there and how many does my child need?” 

There are 22 different childhood vaccines. These vaccines are given to children at different ages and timeframes, depending on where you live and the diseases most prevalent in your country.  

Every country has a national immunization programme with a schedule that outlines the vaccines children need and the age at which they should get them. 

To find out your country’s vaccination schedule, check with your local health worker, health centre or your government’s Ministry of Health website. 

Children’s vaccination schedules in South Asia 

You can also check on the World Health Organization’s immunization data website. 

“Can my baby handle all of these vaccines?” 

Yes. Many parents worry that multiple vaccines will overload their child’s immune system. But children are exposed to hundreds of germs every day. In fact, a common cold or sore throat will put a greater burden on your child’s immune system than vaccines. 

“Isn’t my baby too young to get vaccinated?” 

It’s critical that children get their vaccines at a very young age. This is the period when the immune protection they get from their mothers begins to wane and they’re most vulnerable to diseases. By getting vaccines early on, it builds the strength of your child’s immune system so that she/he is ready to fight potential diseases in the future. 

The recommended age varies by vaccine, but a newborn’s first vaccine is typically given right after their birth, with more follow up vaccines given during their second month of life. 

Talk to your healthcare worker to see when your baby is ready for the first vaccine.  

UNICEF/UN0666584/Laxmi Prasad Ngakhusi - CDC
Three-month-old Rhythm receives his routine vaccinations in Nepal.

“Should my child get all of the recommended vaccines?” 

Yes. Making sure your child doesn’t miss a single dose of their childhood vaccines is crucial to protect her/him from preventable diseases such as polio, tetanus, mumps, measles and more

Now, more than ever, keeping your child up to date with all their vaccines is essential to protect them and children everywhere. This is because during the COVID-19 pandemic, routine immunization services were disrupted and millions more children have missed life-saving vaccines — leaving them unprotected against dangerous diseases.  

This year, South Asia has seen a surge of measles cases and polio is still around – two viruses which were slowly being wiped out in most countries in the region. Making sure your child is vaccinated keeps her/him safe and can also help prevent future outbreaks.  

“Do I need to stick to the vaccine schedule?” 

Yes. These schedules have been developed by scientists and experts who have looked at the best timing to receive a vaccine and what diseases children are vulnerable to.  

In certain countries, for instance, some diseases are more common, so a child will receive those vaccines earlier in their life. That’s why following your country’s vaccine schedule is so important and can help you provide your child with the protection they need to stay healthy. 

“But these diseases are not present in my community. Do I still need to vaccinate my child?” 

Yes. Although the diseases may not be present or eliminated in your country or region, our increasingly interconnected world means that these diseases could spread from areas where they are still present.  

Several diseases, such as polio, are no longer present in a number of countries due to the success of vaccines. However, if we stop vaccinating, those diseases can reappear, putting children who are unvaccinated at greater risk. 

“What happens if my child misses one of their vaccines?” 

The potential consequences of missing a vaccine dose, depends on the vaccine your child has missed.  

If your child misses their measles vaccines, they are at risk of becoming infected with measles, which can lead to: 

  • Severe respiratory infections (including pneumonia) 

  • Dehydration 

  • Severe diarrhea 

  • Ear infections 

  • Brain swelling 

  • Permanent blindness  

  • Death  

If your child misses their polio vaccines, they are at risk of becoming infected with polio, which can lead to: 

  • Weakening of their limbs 

  • Developing abnormalities in their breathing muscles (leading to difficulty breathing, swallowing and speaking) 

  • Paralysis 

  • Meningitis  

  • Death 

Fortunately, children can catch up on vaccines they’ve missed. Talk to your local health worker about the vaccines your child needs. The sooner they can catch up on missed vaccines, the better.

“How can I know if my child has missed a vaccine dose?” 

You can check your child’s routine vaccination record and then compare it with your country’s vaccine schedule.  

A routine vaccination record is a card or booklet given to parents by a health worker. It helps to track their child’s vaccines, as well their development. 

You can also ask your healthcare worker for guidance.  

A child’s routine vaccination record card.
A child’s routine vaccination record card.

“I’ve misplaced my child’s routine vaccination booklet. How can I find out if my child is due for vaccination?” 

If you have lost your child’s routine vaccination record or are unsure about what vaccines your child needs next, speak to your local healthcare worker. They can advise and guide you. 

“My child was born during the pandemic and has missed some or all her vaccines. What should I do?”  

For most vaccines, it is never too late to vaccinate. Talk to your local health worker (or other health service providers at your health centre), about how and when your child should receive their missed vaccine doses. The sooner your child catches up on their missed vaccines, the better. 

Here’s how you can prepare before their vaccination appointment: 

  • Bring your child’s vaccination record card with you to the routine vaccination appointment. If you do not have one, then let the healthcare worker know once you arrive. 

  • If your child is nervous about getting vaccinated, try explaining the vaccination process positively including how she/he will feel and how it helps her/him be stronger. Taking their favourite stuffed animal, toy or blanket with them to get vaccinated can also help comfort and distract children.  

  • After they’ve being vaccinated, monitor your child’s condition for 15-20 minutes at the vaccination center. This will ensure that in the unlikely event that your child has an unexpected reaction to the vaccine, medical professionals are on hand to support you.  

“I’m worried about the side effects of vaccination.” 

Fortunately, the types of side effects that a child can experience from a vaccine are usually very minor, and not even enough to keep them home from school.  

Side effects can include a slight fever or redness and soreness around when they got the vaccine.  

These mild side effects can usually be managed at home and disappear on their own within 12 to 24 hours. They don’t cause any long-term problems. 

“Do I have to pay for my child to receive their routine vaccines?” 

Essential childhood vaccines are free through public health services in South Asia.  

While vaccines are free, in a few instances health centers may charge nominal fees for some associated costs, such as the syringes used to inject some vaccines. 

Vaccinations can raise a lot of questions but Dr MacDonald will talk you through the reliable advice and practical tips you need for your family.