- South African parents are understandably concerned about the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on their children's health
- With schools slowly, but surely, reopening this concern has raised some questions over vaccinations
- Briefly.co.za spoke to Dr Dina Tomson, a General Practitioner situated in Johannesburg, who agreed that ensuring a child's vaccinations are up to date remains as crucial as ever
As we find ourselves in the thick of the Covid-19 pandemic, many parents are asking, ‘Should I continue to vaccinate my children as usual, during this pandemic?’
Parents are understandably worried about taking their children to a nurse or clinic for their regular vaccinations. Some parents may even feel that children are not socializing to the extent that they used to, and are therefore not as exposed. So, what is the best thing to do for our children’s health during this confusing time? The quick and simple answer is to continue to vaccinate.
The EPI (Expanded Programme on Immunisation) in South Africa is designed to immunise children against the most common Vaccine-Preventable Childhood infections. These include many illnesses you’re probably familiar with: Polio, Measles, Mumps, Rubella (German measles), Tetanus, Pertussis (Whooping cough) and Hepatitis B. Our vaccination schedule also covers other potentially deadly infections, such as Rotavirus (most common cause of diarrhoea in children), Haemophilus Influenza B and Pneumococcus (both common causes of pneumonia and meningitis in children under 5 years). There are also the optional extras (for those that can afford to pay for them) of Meningococcal, Chicken pox and annual Influenza vaccines.
Over the past decade, many of these previously common infections have declined to the point that we don’t hear much about them anymore. This is not because they have magically disappeared. It’s because a large enough proportion of our population has been vaccinated against these illnesses, creating a ‘herd immunity’. This prevents outbreaks of infectious diseases, due to most people being immune to them (either through exposure or vaccination) and therefore protects the entire community.
However, over the past few years, we have seen outbreaks of Measles, Mumps and Pertussis in South Africa and abroad, due to declining vaccine uptake. The reasons for this are beyond the scope of this article but suffice to say that as vaccine coverage decreases, rates of disease increase. This is very problematic as these illnesses, while often mild, have the potential to be deadly for children.
In April this year, during the Covid-19 Level 5 lockdown, the childhood vaccination rate in South Africa declined by over 20%. This is extremely concerning. If we do not maintain high vaccination rates, we will lose our hard-fought herd immunity to vaccine-preventable infections which could result in millions of childhood deaths per year.
Fortunately, the Covid-19 mortality rate in children is exceptionally low. The same is definitely not true for the other infections we vaccinate against like pneumonia, meningitis, diarrhoea and measles to name a few. If we do not continue our regular vaccination schedule, we unnecessarily risk the lives of our children. Disease outbreaks could overwhelm the already overburdened healthcare system in South Africa.
In addition to the routine childhood vaccination schedule, it is now more important than ever to vaccinate children (over the age of 6 months) against Influenza. Children both transmit and are at risk for severe influenza infection especially if they have underlying chest problems such as asthma.
Some parents may worry that they have missed the window of opportunity to vaccinate their child. The good news is that catch up programmes are available and nurses are used to dealing with this situation.
Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus- the WHO Director-General said in April during World Immunisation Week:
“Disease outbreaks must not remain a threat when we have safe and effective vaccines to protect us. While the world strives to develop a new vaccine for Covid-19 at record speed, we must not risk losing the fight to protect everyone, everywhere against vaccine-preventable diseases. These diseases will come roaring back if we do not vaccinate.”
“Immunization is an essential service, even during Covid-19, and is safe and free in all public health facilities in South Africa.” says Dr Mariame Sylla, Health Chief of UNICEF South Africa.
Let us keep our children safe and healthy during this tumultuous time.
Meanwhile, Briefly.co.za reported that the final batch of students is expected to be phased in during the month of August.
This comes as the Department of Education attempts to slowly reopen schools amid an expected peak in infections.
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