As the race to find a vaccine against the coronavirus speeds up, the pandemic has shown the importance of vaccines in keeping us safe.
Yet South Africa’s child vaccination rate has dropped. Does this put our children’s health at risk, especially as more children go back to the classroom?
“The considerable drop in immunisation coverage is partly due to a fear of going out and catching the coronavirus. Also, there were low vaccine stock levels countrywide due to disruptions in the logistics supply chain during the height of lockdown, making access difficult,” says Dr Iqbal Karbanee, CEO of Paed-IQ BabyLine, a 24/7 telephonic-based helpline for medical advice, given by paediatric-trained nurses.
Worryingly, in SA, statistics from the Department of Health (DOH) show that immunisation coverage in April dropped to 61% in 2020, down from 82% in 2019. The rate for measles decreased further to 55%. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends the immunisation coverage for countries to be 95%.
“People with immune response issues, babies and young children need to have vaccinated people around them to keep them safe from viruses and diseases; it keeps our most vulnerable citizens safe. We cannot afford for parents to continue to delay vaccinating their children,” says Karbanee.
He says that while the DOH has issued a “catch-up” schedule to follow for parents who may have delayed or missed key vaccinations, all parents are urged to ensure that their children are vaccinated by the end of November 2020, which will allow enough time for children to build up immunity before starting school in January 2021.
“It takes approximately four to six weeks for vaccinations to be effective from the administered date,” explains Karbanee. “Parents who pay for medical services using cash because of limited to no medical aid cover, or who rely on government vaccination stock, will need to allow for additional time in case there are stock issues, should a sudden demand occur before the 2021 school year kicks off.”
At the beginning of October, Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga published the 2021 school calendar, with pupils set to return on January 27. She said that schools will reopen later than planned due to the coronavirus pandemic, which majorly disrupted the 2020 school year.
Karbanee says that while vaccination has become a controversial issue with a worrying number of parents simply not immunising their children, there is no scientific basis or evidence for not vaccinating a school-going child.
“While no medical intervention is 100% safe, there is clear evidence that vaccinating children helps to protect them,” says Karbanee.
He says the only time parents should avoid vaccinating is where it has been proven that children are allergic to the vaccination or its ingredients, or where immunity is suppressed.
“The decision to vaccinate should be analysed according to the risks and benefits. When making these decisions, it’s crucial to think about the disease the vaccine can protect you from, and to seek the right information from credible medical sources.”
He recommends that caregivers who are uncertain should phone a reputable and trusted medical-advice line to get direction on the correct course of action, which will avoid queuing in clinics or paying for consultations when information is required.
“Parents can, besides vaccinating their children, help kids build a good immunity by following a nutritious diet, allowing for ample opportunities of physical movement throughout the day, and following reasonable standards of hygiene, as children need exposure to many natural situations in order to build up a tolerance for disease,” concludes Karbanee.