A case of semantics: Vaccination vs Immunisation

A case of semantics: Vaccination vs Immunisation

Language is a funny thing. As a writer, I understand the importance of utilising correct grammar to get your point across, and of how badly things can be misinterpreted when the wrong word is chosen. I’m sure we’ve all experienced the silly arguments that can take place when a person reads a post you’ve made on Facebook or a text message you’ve sent ‘the wrong way’, and read into things meaning that wasn’t intended. Ambiguity can be dangerous for that reason, and never more so than when reading medical information.

Which brings us to the point of today’s blog: ‘Vaccination’, or ‘immunisation’?

Let’s examine.

According to the Meriam-Webster dictionary online, they follow as thus:


: the creation of immunity usually against a particular disease; especially: treatment (as by vaccination) of an organism for the purpose of making it immune to a particular pathogen <immunization against polio>

Dictionary.com puts it more simply:

tomake immune, esp byinoculation

For vaccination, we find, from Meriam-Webster:


: the act of vaccinating


Or under ‘medical definition’



: the introduction into humans or domestic animals of microorganisms that have previously been treated to make them harmless for the purpose of inducing the development of immunity <oral vaccination> <vaccination against smallpox> <vaccination for whooping cough>


This then goes on to define ‘vaccinating’ as to ‘administer a vaccine’, and a ‘vaccine’ as

: a preparation of killed microorganisms, living attenuated organisms, or living fully virulent organisms that is administered to produce or artificially increase immunity to a particular disease


Dictionary.reference.com is more succinct, offering for vaccination

Medicine/Medical .

theactor practice of vaccinating;  inoculation with vaccine.



With that out of the way, let’s examine.

Firstly, we need to find the difference, subtle as they may be, as this is one of the key points we need to understand.


Immunisation essentially means to confer immunity, in common parlance generally by way of being vaccinated. But do vaccines always confer immunity? Well, no. All have varying degrees of efficacy, and New Zealand health figures show that for many common ‘preventable diseases’ (by that, they mean ‘has a vaccine for’) many people who’ve contracted them this year were indeed vaccinated. None offer life-long immunity either, even if they do offer it short-term for a few years, so most require some form of ‘booster’ top-up shot throughout adulthood.


So is that really immunity? Well, maybe. But what about those who never form any kind of ‘immunity’ from the vaccines? The ones who may receive two or three or four vaccines of the same kind, yet never form the desired antibodies – this is generally picked up by people wanting to enter a profession that requires ‘immunity’ against things like rubella (for midwives and nurses), hepatitis (for people working in high-risk fields), and other illnesses, who are tested for antibodies yet never manage to develop them. It happens far more often than people would like to think, and means ‘immunity’ from ‘immunisations’ is far more elusive than we realise.


Vaccination, on the other hand, means to be vaccinated with a vaccine with the desired outcome of forming immunity against it. It doesn’t mean that the person does, in fact, develop that immunity – and is thus the much more accurate term.


Why does this matter, you may ask? It’s just simple semantics, right?


Not at all.


Let’s now examine the literature coming from the Ministry of Health and pro-vaccine lobby groups around the country, and note which word they prefer.


First, the Ministry of Health.


On the homepage of their website at present (www.health.govt.nz), the main story is a photo of a mother and baby, under the heading ‘Parents share their experience of whooping cough’. Click to look at the story, and what are the main subheadings?


Get yourself immunised to protect your baby’.

Twin girls’ illness highlights the importance of immunising on time’.

Back to the homepage, and other headings we see are:
Under ‘recent publications’, a link to ‘HPV
Immunisation Programme Implementation Evaluation’.
And under ‘popular guides and tools’, a link to the ‘New Zealand
Immunisation Schedule’.


Note the constant inference that vaccination and immunisation are the same thing, and that vaccination will always confer immunity? It’s a subtle technique, very similar to that used in neuro-linguistic programming. Some could even call it subliminal messaging, or just good old-fashioned ‘brainwashing’- the constant repetition of a word that implies you’ll become immune to something by way of their magic needles, and therefore safe from the dreadful illness they’re talking about in these articles. ‘This is terrifying and your child could die, get the jab, and become immune!!’

So where’s the mention that vaccination doesn’t always mean immunity? It isn’t there. They leave that part out.


Let’s try the other major vaccine-lobbyists, the University of Auckland’s ‘Immunisation Advisory Centre’, or www.immune.org.nz – note the inference made even from the website’s name? An organisation that will make you or help you to become immune/gain immunity? Hmm.


Let’s look at their homepage.


First, we have the headlines ‘Immunisation – be informed, make your own decision’. It should be noted here that there’s not a single thing against vaccines on the site, and their entire schtick is to make sure as many people as possible are vaccinated. What they mean is, ‘read our information and there’ll be only one decision you can make, which is to vaccinate, because that’s all you’ll find from us – but at least you’ll feel like it was your choice!’


Then there’s ‘Your immunisation resource for parents and health professionals in New Zealand’.


And the phoneline, 0800 IMMUNE


I won’t go on, but suffice to say I can count the word ‘immunisation’ used on their homepage 18 times, vaccine used seven times (all but one alongside ‘immunisation’), and vaccination once (also alongside ‘immunisation’, as if the words are interchangeable).


So what message is this sending?


In short, that vaccination and immunisation are the same thing, and that vaccines will confer immunity. Which isn’t always the case, as we know. Utilising correct language is so important to avoid subtly manipulating people into coming to a conclusion about something that isn’t necessarily true. In a world where it’s so difficult for people to access correct information about vaccines, let along actually question what we’re told so often, a key point should be the correct use of language so as not to give people to wrong idea. Personally I’m sure these groups are perfectly aware of the terminology they’re using and of the effect the word ‘immunise’ has on the average person, whether they themselves are aware of it or not – but maybe I’m just reading into it too much.


Or maybe it’s entirely innocent, they’re doing it without realising what their constant use of the word ‘immunise’ implies, and the entire text of their sites will be changed to ‘vaccinate/vaccination’ in the next few months!!


As for the ‘Immunisation Awareness Society’, and our use of the word ‘Immunisation’, I would hope this blog does bring some awareness to the word itself and to what these groups mean by ‘immunise’ and mean to imply by using the word ‘immunisation’. The more awareness we can bring to these issues, and to the topic commonly referred to by the medical establishment as ‘immunisation’, the better we’ll all be and the more equipped parents will be to make a truly informed choice.