Keeping South Africa’s immunisation effort on track

Posted on April 19, 2013

World Immunisation week begins on 20 April and it purpose is to promote immunisation as one of the world’s most powerful tools for health.

Prof Riana Cockeran of the university’s Department of Immunology says South Africa’s Expanded programme on Immunisation (EPI) isperforming well.In the last few years the inclusion of the pneumococcal conjugate vaccine and a vaccine to protect against Rotavirus have strengthened the programme.These vaccines provide protection against diarrhoeal disease and respiratory infections which cause many fatalities in children under the age of five years.

Her view is supported by Prof Lynne Webber of the Department of Medical Virology at the university who points out that millions of lives are saved in developing countries as a result of immunisation programmes.

“We are close to eliminating polio and eventually hope to eliminate measles. This would be a great achievement as diseases are not easily eradicated. In the history of medicine, only the smallpox virus has been declared eradicated,” says Prof Webber.

Experts are concerned about World Health Organisation (WHO) statistics which indicate that 22.4 million children worldwide are incompletely vaccinated at 12 months of age. This means they may have had some essential vaccines but not others; or that they may not have taken all necessary doses of a particular vaccine.

Prof Webber agrees that this situation is in all probability true in South Africa, despite the success of the EPI, especially in rural and under-resourced areas.

The dangers of not completing the immunisation programme are myriad: from disease outbreaks to deaths of susceptible people, such as the very young, the old, the sick, and those with chronic diseases. Where severe outbreaks of disease occur, they also have an economic impact through over-loading the health system and increasing absenteeism from work.

Prof Webber believes that South Africa is tackling the problem of incomplete immunisation with its mass vaccination campaigns, mop-up vaccination campaigns and catch-up vaccination campaigns. The intense focus of these campaigns and the interest that they generate in the community means they reach children who have skipped their regular clinic visits.

MYTHS about vaccines

  • Vaccines commonly cause adverse events
  • Vaccines are dangerous and possibly toxic
  • Vaccines can cause or precipitate other medical conditions. For example, the myth that the measles vaccine causes autism
  • Vaccines may cause sterility
  • Vaccines can give you HIV/AIDS infection
  • Vaccines may be linked to cancers
  • Vaccine may make you sick or give you serious side-effects
  • Combination vaccines give you more side-effects
  • It is better to get the disease naturally then your immunity is stronger
  • You should not vaccinate HIV/AIDS infected people.

FACTS about vaccines

  • Vaccines prevent very dangerous diseases
  • Vaccines usually have very mild side-effects or no noticeable side-effects
  • Vaccines prevent complications of infectious diseases, such as pneumonia
  • Vaccines prevent long-term consequences of disease. For example, disability resulting from polio
  • Vaccines provide “herd immunity” to the broader community
  • Strict attention to use of clean needles means immunisation does not expose people to HIV
  • Vaccines prevent cervical cancer
  • Vaccines are especially important for protecting people with HIV, including children
  • Vaccines make economic sense. They avoid the costs of treatment and absenteeism

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