Time to get jabbed: The low down on childhood vaccinations

by | Jan 12, 2020

If you have fallen behind on your child’s vaccinations during lockdown, it’s time to get them back on track, writes paediatrician Dr Enrico Maraschin.

The world is starting to emerge from a unique event, or at least, a pandemic of a magnitude that hasn’t been experienced for a very long time.

Naturally, people have been afraid and have kept children away from other people and medical facilities as much as possible. For curtailing the spread of COVID-19, this has been a good thing. Having said this, however, it is important to note that many of the diseases we routinely vaccinate against, can have way more devastating effects on children than we have seen with COVID-19.

Despite this many parents have allowed their children to miss out on vaccinations for fear of getting COVID-19, and this is partly because the media has done a fantastic job of educating people on COVID-19, so parents are aware of its potential danger. The other factor is that our vaccination programmes have generally been so good, that we do not see the devastating effects of vaccine preventable diseases in our communities.

A couple of years ago I was fortunate enough to visit Croatia. My daughter noted that there were a lot of adults riding around on skateboards, but with their legs bent in the wrong direction. I had to explain to her that these people had suffered a disease known as polio.

In South Africa, babies are vaccinated against polio before they even leave hospital. This is then boosted three times by the time the child is 14 weeks old. This vaccination programme has been so successful, that South Africa was declared completely free of wild polio earlier this year. This is certainly one very positive piece of news for 2020.

What is now of great concern to the medical world is that we see a resurgence of vaccine preventable diseases simply because children have missed out on their vaccinations during the pandemic.

In 2018, more than 14  000 people died from measles. This number seems shocking, but doesn’t tell the story of the other measles sufferers who got secondary bacterial infections like pneumonia, or developed brain damage from the illness. Measles is a vaccine preventable disease, but there was resistance to the vaccine from various anti-vaccine groups.

If children miss out on their vaccinations, then outbreaks such as the measles one will start to take place. Certain childhood diseases may not pose as much a threat as the others. In the past children have had chicken pox, mumps and Rubella (German measles) and many children do not suffer any long-term effects of the disease. However, there are those who may develop secondary infections to these childhood diseases, and these can serious.

Unfortunately, I have personally treated children with every one of these vaccine preventable diseases except diphtheria. That being said, we did have an outbreak of diphtheria in KwaZulu-Natal a few years ago.

For me the most devastating are those diseases that cause meningitis. A child infected with one of these diseases can go from a healthy child to severely brain damaged or even dead in a couple of hours. A practitioner can literally watch as the patient’s health unravels before their eyes, and unless immediate medical intervention is received, the consequences are nothing short of traumatic for all involved.

Our current vaccine schedule protects children from 17 potentially life-threatening diseases. Your child will receive the greatest number of vaccinations in the first year of life, as a child is born with a relatively naïve immune system. The vaccination is designed to trigger the immune system to respond to the vaccine. This way, if the child then encounters the actual disease, the immune system will be primed to prevent the illness from taking hold of the body.

If your child is one of those children who missed out on vaccines during this period then it is strongly advised that you take your child to the clinic and begin a catch-up programme as soon as possible. Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director General, stated that  The avoidable suffering and death caused by children missing out on routine immunisations could be far greater than COVID-19 itself.”

South African children do not need to be part of this statistic, as we offer a comprehensive vaccine programme to protect our most valuable assets, namely our children.


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