We look at how vaccines work and why they are important, plus an updated vaccination schedule.
World Immunization Week is 24-30 April, which aims to promote the use of vaccines to protect people of all ages against disease. Vaccinations save millions of lives and immunisation is recognised as one of the most successful and cost-effective health interventions.
The World Health Organization (WHO) states that routine immunisation is a fundamental starting point in primary healthcare – it offers every child the chance at a healthy life from the start. Immunisation is also a fundamental strategy in achieving other health priorities, from controlling viral hepatitis, to curbing antimicrobial resistance, to providing a platform for adolescent health and improving antenatal and newborn care.
The Independent Community Pharmacy Association (ICPA) provides some basic information on vaccines:
How do vaccines work?
Vaccines contain either:
- Non-infectious fragments of bacteria and viruses.
- Whole live bacteria or viruses that have been weakened so that they cannot cause disease.
- A toxin that is produced by the bacteria but has been altered to be harmless (called a toxoid).
When they are introduced into the body (usually by injection), they stimulate the body’s immune system to fight against that disease, without the person actually being infected with the illness. Once the immune system has been activated by the vaccine, it recognises any future invasion by that particular virus or bacteria and is able to mount a rapid, effective immune response before the infectious agent can establish itself within the body and cause disease.
Why must we vaccinate against rare diseases that have been almost eradicated?
Diseases such as diphtheria and polio are rarely encountered today, largely because of widespread vaccination programmes. It is essential, however, to continue to vaccinate until a particular disease is essentially eradicated before vaccinating can cease. These diseases are extremely contagious and if vaccinating is stopped prematurely, one infectious individual could cause rapid spread among a vulnerable non-immune community. By maintaining a regular vaccination programme, “herd” immunity and protection against an epidemic is ensured.
How safe are vaccines?
Vaccines today are highly reliable and most people tolerate them well, with few exhibiting mild side effects such as pain at the injection site, an itchy rash or mild fever. Vaccines are continuously undergoing improvements to ensure their safety and effectiveness.
Do combination vaccines work?
In addition to protecting children against numerous diseases, one of the biggest advantages of combination vaccines is that fewer injections are needed. Combining vaccines in one injection does not affect the effectiveness or safety of the individual vaccines.
Below is a chart of the vaccine guideline as published by the National Department of Health:
The below vaccines are also available for children, but they are not currently provided by the state via the EPI Vaccination Schedule. These include:
- Influenza (flu) vaccine – The seasonal flu vaccine protects against three dangerous strains of the influenza virus prevalent in any particular year. It is highly recommended that all children between six months and five years are vaccinated each year to protect them against these virulent forms of flu. The flu vaccine is also particularly important for vulnerable groups such as the elderly, those on chronic medication, asthma sufferers, diabetics and those who are HIV positive.
- Chickenpox (varicella) vaccine – This protects against both chickenpox and later shingles. Children should receive two doses of the chickenpox vaccine starting at one year of age. Adults may be vaccinated at any time if they didn’t have two doses of the vaccine or didn’t experienced chickenpox when they were younger.
- Hepatitis A vaccine – This is indicated for active immunisation against infection caused by hepatitis A virus in children aged from 12 months to 15 years inclusive. Two doses of hepatitis A vaccine are recommended for all children beginning at 12 months. The two doses should be six months apart. Older children and adults can receive the vaccine if they are at risk for contracting the disease and were not vaccinated when they were younger. Transmission of the hepatitis A virus usually occurs through the consumption of contaminated water or food.
- Measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine – Children should receive two doses of the MMR vaccine. The first dose should be given at 12 to 15 months, and the second dose at four to six years. This vaccine prevents mumps and rubella in addition to measles. Mumps is highly contagious and can lead to deafness, brain or spinal cord infection, and painful swelling of the testicles. Mumps in adult men can cause a drop in sperm count so may affect fertility. Rubella or German measles is a highly contagious, but generally mild disease but can cause miscarriage or serious birth defects if a pregnant woman is infected.
- Meningococcal vaccine – This helps prevent meningococcal meningitis, a serious condition which can lead to permanent and disabling medical problems and can be fatal. Meningococcal disease is more likely to occur in babies younger than one year, in young people aged between 16 and 23, in anyone with a weak immune system, and those who are exposed to an outbreak of the disease. It is also a vaccine that is recommended for travel to certain countries where meningococcal disease is prevalent.
The ICPA recommends speaking to your doctor or pharmacist about whether or not you should consider any of these additional vaccines for your child.
The WHO has launched a campaign to raise awareness about the fact that vaccines do work (#vaccineswork) and the critical importance of full immunisation throughout life. In support of this initiative, the ICPA, a body which represents more than 1 000 independent community pharmacies in South Africa, is urging all South African parents to ensure that their children’s immunisations are up to date.
Pharmacy clinics provide immunisations
“Nearly every independent community pharmacy in South Africa offers a clinic service where people can get their children vaccinated,” says Jackie Maimin, acting CEO of ICPA. “It offers a safe, convenient, accessible and affordable way to keep up to date on immunisations. Pharmacy clinics utilise the services of competent professionals, such as nursing sisters or pharmacists trained in immunisation techniques, to provide vaccinations.”
Xanet is an award-winning journalist and Living and Loving’s digital editor. She has won numerous awards for her health and wellness articles and was a finalist for the Discovery Journalist of the Year in 2009 and again in 2011 for the Discovery Best Health Consumer Reporting and Feature Writing category. She is responsible for our online presence across social media channels and makes sure our moms have fresh and interesting articles to read every day. Learn more about Xanet Scheepers.