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How to talk to kids about vaccines

01 March 2021, Voices from the Field

Helpful explainers before the big shots

From six weeks old to 16 years, children in Australia have been used to getting vaccines regularly. But with the rollout of the new COVID-19 vaccine, children may have more questions now about how vaccines work and how they can help end the pandemic.  

It’s important to listen to children, understand their questions and answer their questions truthfully and calmly. Children may be reassured by the fact that these vaccines will work the same way the others do – by preventing us from getting sick in the first place. 

Why do we need vaccines? 

Using a simple analogy, such as soldiers and invaders, can help younger children understand why we need vaccines. For example, you may wish to explain that our bodies keep us healthy by attacking outside invaders like viruses and bacteria. When our body’s soldiers – the immune system – isn’t fast enough to catch the invaders, the invaders take over our immune system and we get sick. 

Sometimes our soldiers need help fighting off disease. Vaccines act as a teacher – they go in and teach our soldiers how to fight off the invaders before they attack our immune system. Then, when the invaders attack, your soldiers remember what they’ve been taught. They’re trained and ready to fight off the attackers, and you stay healthy. 

Address your child’s most common fears

One of the most common fears children will have about vaccines is pain. Many vaccines are given as a shot, although some are given orally or sniffed through the nose. 

Understanding a child’s fear and helping them work through it, is important to help get kids comfortable with receiving vaccines. You may wish to explain although the shot may pinch for a few seconds, and your arm may be sore for a day or so afterward, it will help protect them from disease which could be more painful and last a lot longer. 

For younger children, including toddlers and preschoolers, distraction at the point of the vaccination can help. Bringing their favourite toy, balloons or bubbles, or even some fruit to eat during the vaccination process can divert their attention and avert a meltdown. 

Why are vaccines so important? 

Vaccines are critical, not only to protect us, but for the health of people around us. When we stay healthy, we can’t pass our disease onto others through our runny nose or cough. 

But not everyone can get a vaccine to keep themselves safe. So, when enough people are vaccinated, it helps stop the disease spreading, which protects other people who can’t get vaccinated. That’s what we call herd immunity.

For example, you could explain to a child, that grandma or grandpa may not be able to get a vaccine, because the right sort of vaccine – or teacher – isn’t available. But when we all get vaccinated, we can stop the disease from reaching our loved ones, so they don’t need the teacher to stay safe. 

Ending disease and getting the pandemic under control

Even with the rollout of the new vaccine, it’s important children still understand safety measures like social distancing and mask wearing may still be in place for some time yet. Since not everyone will be able to get a vaccine right away, these measures will help slow the spread of the virus

However, vaccines have severely reduced the spread of many diseases like measles, mumps, rubella, cholera, and polio. It’s even eliminated one – smallpox. There’s great hope that the COVID-19 vaccination will be an important step in getting to a new normal, where children can be protected and help protect others. 

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