During the week of 24 to 30 April 2019, Africans will be celebrating Vaccination Week. The theme of this initiative, which aims to create awareness of vaccines that can protect children and women in particular from specific preventable diseases, is ‘Vaccines work, do your part’.
Vaccination is one of the most successful strategies impacting the health of people. Millions of people are alive today because they were vaccinated during childhood. The Expanded Programme of Immunisation (EPI) applied in South Africa ensures that all children in the country have free access to various vaccines that save lives and reduce illness.
Most parents and adults today have forgotten the devastating effects that diseases such as measles and polio had in the past as those diseases have been largely eliminated as a result of vaccine programmes. Unfortunately anti-vaccination activists have in recent years been spreading baseless propaganda suggesting that vaccines have serious side effects and should be avoided. One of the culprits in driving this idea was a UK-based researcher who faked data to suggest that the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine causes autism. Since no evidence supporting this claim exists, his work was discredited and he was found guilty of medical fraud.
Sadly many parents were misled by this propaganda and refused to have their children vaccinated, which has resulted in an increase in the incidence of diseases that had almost been eradicated.
In the year 2000, the USA declared that measles had been eradicated. However, this year large numbers of unvaccinated children contracted this serious and highly contagious condition. An outbreak of measles was also reported in Madagascar, where a lack of access to vaccines was cited as the cause.
I implore you to please have your children vaccinated and save their lives!
Another important vaccine that is readily available in South Africa and should be administered to both children and adults, is the influenza vaccine. Unfortunately relatively few people choose this route to avoid illness.
Influenza, which is caused by a virus and affects many South African children during the winter months, is characterised by the sudden onset of symptoms that include fever, aches and pains, headache, a dry cough, sore throat, nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea. Since the influenza virus remains active for longer periods in children than in adults, they also spread the disease for longer periods. Furthermore, the risk of complications from influenza is higher in young children and approximately 20–30% of children under the age of two years develop complications. Influenza vaccine is the most important barrier for the prevention of influenza and can be administered to children from the age of six months.
Although influenza vaccinations are recommended for all people, children and adults who should be vaccinated annually are:
- all those at high risk of complications from influenza, including those with chronic pulmonary, cardiac, renal, hepatic, endocrine, neurologic, metabolic or immunological diseases that increase the risk of severe influenza;
- children on chronic aspirin therapy; and
- adults and children who have regular contact with young children or high-risk individuals.
Some countries recommend routine immunisation of all young, healthy children between the ages of six and 59 months.
Contra-indications to the use of the influenza vaccine are few and include:
- People with a history of severe allergy to eggs
- People with acute febrile illnesses, who should preferably only be immunised once all symptoms have disappeared
- Pregnant women, specifically during the first trimester
Vaccines should be administered early enough to provide protection for the winter months. NOW IS THE TIME TO BE VACCINATED! A protective antibody response takes about two weeks to develop. However, it is never too late to have a ’flu vaccine and it can still be administered later in the winter months.
If you have not been vaccinated and get influenza, only supportive and symptomatic therapy should be given. The treatment does not include antibiotics, unless a patient is hospitalised.
Finally, I need to put to rest some of the myths that people use to avoid getting a ‘flu shot:
- ‘I’d rather develop immunity to influenza naturally.’ Well, while you get your natural immunity, bear in mind that many South Africans die of influenza every year.
- ‘Last time I got the vaccine it gave me ‘flu.’ Impossible. The vaccine is a dead virus. Sometimes it causes a mild response as it ‘tunes in’ the immune system. It is also more likely that what you had was no more than a common cold.
Please remember: VACCINES WORK, DO YOUR PART and ensure that you and your children get the influenza vaccine soon.
Professor Robin J Green teaches in the Department of Paediatrics and Child Health at the University of Pretoria