A report by WHO in February 2016 shows that one out of every five African children are at risk for diseases like tetanus, pertussis, and measles because they do not receive all of the basic vaccines they need. Widespread fears and myths often prevent communities from embracing vaccination as a life-saving weapon for their children.
Here are common myths that place children at risk for deadly diseases.
Myth 1: Vaccines have damaging and long-term side effects that aren’t known yet. FALSE
Vaccines are very safe. Vaccine reactions tend to be mild and include a slight fever and a sore arm. Severe side effects are rare.
Myth 2: Vaccines are not necessary because improved hygiene and sanitation will make diseases disappear. FALSE
Improving hygiene, hand washing, and clean water help protect people from infectious disease, but infections can spread no matter how clean we are. Without vaccination, diseases that have become almost extinct worldwide, such as polio and measles, will reappear.
Myth 3: Vaccines cause infertility. FALSE
In northern Nigeria and Uganda for example, there is widespread belief that vaccination in childhood causes infertility when they become adults. There is no evidence to support this.
Myth 4: Giving a child several vaccines at a time can cause harmful side effects, and overload the child’s immune system. FALSE
Receiving several vaccines at the same time has no negative effect on a child’s immune system. Children are exposed to hundred s of foreign agents daily in food and the environment that trigger an immune response.
Myth 5: I don’t put others at risk if I don’t vaccinate my children. FALSE
Worldwide, most outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases are started by unvaccinated children and adults. Not vaccinating your child puts infants and young children with immature immune systems at risk for severe disease.
Myth 6: Vaccines don’t work. FALSE
The scientific evidence clearly shows otherwise. Vaccines save at least 2 million lives a year. The truth is that because of the success of vaccination programs, most of us are fortunate to have never experienced the devastation caused by the diseases vaccines prevent.
Myth 7: Natural immunity from the disease is better than immunity through vaccines. FALSE
Natural immunity from getting an infectious disease will certainly prevent a child from getting the disease again but comes at a huge cost. The child is sick for days, with school absenteeism and lost working days for parents. More important, though is the significant risk of permanent disability such as paralysis, deafness, mental retardation and even death from the disease.
Myth 8: Vaccines cause Autism FALSE
More than 100 studies have shown that there is no link between vaccines and autism.
Myth 9: Vaccines contain mercury, which is dangerous. FALSE
Thimerosal, an organic, mercury-containing preservative is added in tiny amounts to some vaccines that come in multi-dose vials. Scientific evidence does not show that the amount of thimerosal used in vaccines causes any health risk.
Are you concerned about the cost of vaccination? Here’s what you should know:
It’s way more costly to treat a child who is sick with a vaccine-preventable disease. The cost of hospital admission and medicines can be crippling to the average low-income African family. There are also indirect costs, which include lost income from missing work, school, and childcare. You avoid these costs and the heartache of watching your child suffer by vaccinating your child.
Has your child received all the recommended shots for his or her age? If not, you may have a time bomb on your hands.
Measles, Tetanus, Whooping Cough, Pneumonia, Rotavirus Diarrhea, Tuberculosis, Meningitis, and Malaria, are the most common infections that cause death in children in Africa. Of the eight diseases, seven can be prevented through routine childhood vaccinations.
It’s quite easy to forget just how devastating these diseases and their complications are.
Polio, a viral infection affects the nervous system, and can cause crippling paralysis within hours. A focused worldwide Polio vaccination campaign, which started in 1988 has eradicated polio in most of the world. Today, Polio remains endemic in only two countries – Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Measles causes a high fever, rash, and cold-like symptoms. It can lead to deafness, pneumonia, brain damage, and death. It spreads so quickly that a child who has not received the vaccine is likely to get the disease if exposed to it. The measles virus is highly contagious because it can remain in the air for as long as two hours after a person with the disease has left the room. Measles kills approximately half a million children each year in Africa.
Diphtheria, which starts as a severe throat infection, can cause paralysis, breathing difficulties, heart problems, and death.
Tetanus (Lockjaw), a bacteria found in soil and dirt infects a cut or wound, or often, a baby’s umbilical cord after birth. Tetanus can cause severe muscle spasms, breathing difficulty, heart problems, and death.
Pertussis (Whooping Cough), spreads from person to person through coughing or sneezing. It causes long bouts of coughing that make it difficult for a child to breathe, eat, or drink, Pertussis can lead to long-term lung problems, seizures, brain damage, and death. Pertussis kills approximately 133,000 children each year in Africa.
Haemophilus Influenzae Type B (Hib) can cause pneumonia; meningitis (inflammation of the lining of the brain); infections of the joints, skin, brain damage, and death. It is most severe in infants under one year of age.
Pneumococcal disease can lead to pneumonia, sepsis
Rotavirus, a virus you’ve probably never heard about, is the number one cause of severe diarrhea in infants and young children worldwide.
Tuberculosis (TB) is airborne and highly contagious particularly to persons with weakened immune systems. It usually infects the lungs, but other parts of the body, including the bones, joints, and brain, can be affected.
Hepatitis B, an infection of the liver can be transmitted from an infected mother to her newborn during childbirth. It can also be passed from person to person through blood or body fluids or sexual contact. It can cause chronic liver damage, liver cancer, and death. It is second only to tobacco in causing human cancer.
Meningococcal Meningitis, an inflammation of the lining of the brain spreads through coughing or sneezing. It causes an intense headache, fever, nausea, vomiting, sensitivity to light, stiff neck, lethargy, delirium, convulsions, coma, and death.
Yellow fever is spread by mosquitoes and can be deadly. It causes jaundice; high fever; general muscle pain; a backache; chills; a headache; loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, bleeding from the mouth, nose, eyes, or stomach. Shock, liver and kidney failure, are its major complications.
Mumps is a viral infection can cause a headache and fever, is most commonly known for swelling of the glands of the neck. Less commonly known is that it also causes swelling and inflammation of the testicles in males. It can lead to male sterility, deafness, meningitis, and brain damage.
Rubella (German Measles) causes a fever and a rash on the face and neck. In pregnancy, it can cause miscarriage and severe birth defects. Like measles and mumps, rubella spreads from person to person very quickly, through coughing, sneezing, or just talking.
Chickenpox (Varicella) is a very contagious disease. It causes a rash and fever and is spread by coughing, sneezing or direct contact. A common complication in children is a bacterial infection of the skin. Among its serious complications is inflammation of the brain, pneumonia, and death. If a woman has this disease while pregnant, it can cause birth defects and stillbirth.
Hepatitis A is also an infection of the liver, but different from hepatitis B. Hepatitis A usually is spread by close household contact and sometimes by eating food or drinking water containing the virus.
Vaccination is by far one of the greatest success stories of the twentieth century, surpassing the discovery of penicillin and the landing on the moon. Think about it – by giving someone portions of viruses or bacteria, you stimulate the body’s immune system into making chemicals that fight those germs. Brilliant!!
Simply put, vaccination saves lives. Worldwide, it prevents 2 to 3 million deaths every year.
You don’t have to look very hard, to find stories of lives affected by the development of vaccines. Here’s one mother’s story – my story.
Picture an eager young doctor in an inner city medical center in the New York metropolitan area, training to specialize in pediatrics. The training was physically, mentally and emotionally taxing. As a new mother and doctor, it was heart wrenching to watch children die. To be the person breaking the horrible news of a child’s death to a parent, was to be an unwilling participant in a tragedy that changed lives forever.
It was the mid-eighties, and it seemed as though every child from newborn to 3 years old admitted to the hospital for fever was suspected of having meningitis, an infection of the membrane covering the brain. The pediatric wing of the hospital had an entire ward filled with babies with hydrocephalus, a complication of meningitis in which fluid collects in the brain unable to drain out through normal channels. These children looked like aliens from science fiction, with massive heads, twice, even three times the usual size. They often had seizures and were also usually deaf or blind or both, as a result of meningitis. Destined for long-term medical care facilities, they would never live out the hopes and dreams of their parents.
The Supreme Court upheld mandatory vaccination in 1922 and the list of vaccines expanded gradually with the development of new ones. By the mid-eighties, diseases like tetanus, diphtheria, and measles were routinely prevented by vaccination. Meningitis was still a problem, though. There were no vaccines against the three bacteria responsible for 80% of all childhood meningitis Hemophilus Influenzae type B (HIB), Pneumococcus, and N. Meningitidis.
In 1984, a remarkable breakthrough came with the release of the first vaccine against HIB and pediatricians the world over cheered. It could only be given to children 24 months and older. Meningitis due to HIB and Pneumococcus has the most devastating consequences in children from 6 months to 2 years old, and so the recommended timing for giving the new vaccine wasn’t ideal. The medical community, however, was confident that the data would show it was safe and effective in younger children and indeed, by 1986 the HIB vaccine was licensed for use beginning at six weeks old.
It was in this setting that our 21-month-old daughter started preschool. A bit early you might think, but our little girl was quite smart. Six weeks after starting school, our daughter woke up one morning with a high fever and a right eye swollen shut. As a pediatrician in training, I had treated this many times and knew immediately that she very likely had Periorbital Cellulitis, a severe bacterial infection that could lead to meningitis.
We rushed her to the medical center where I worked and within an hour our little angel was admitted to the same pediatric floor that I worked. The diagnosis was one I was all too familiar with, “22-month-old female with Periorbital Cellulitis, Suspected Meningitis”. I had suddenly gone from being the “angel” in a white doctor’s coat that fixed children ailments and comforted their parents to being an anxious parent of a very sick child. The role reversal was frightening.
A blood test confirmed that she had HIB infection, but the lumbar puncture test for meningitis was thankfully negative. The bacteria had not yet infected the covering of her brain. After three harrowing days of high dose antibiotics, the infection cleared from her blood, and we were allowed to take our little one home and continue treatment orally for another week.
You might ask why, when there was HIB vaccine available, didn’t she get the vaccine. The answer is that this happened in November 1985 when she was 22 months old, and she wasn’t eligible to receive the HIB vaccine since she wasn’t yet 24 months old. Within five years of the use of the HIB vaccine, the occurrence of HIB infection dropped sharply in the U.S. and by 1995 new pediatric interns would never see a case of the disease.
If our daughter had been born five months earlier, she would have gotten the HIB vaccine in August, a month before she started preschool. By Providence, she did not develop meningitis. She could well have been another statistic, a footnote for medical researchers and historians.
Vaccination works, it saves lives.