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The number of life-threatening diseases has been greatly reduced by effective immunization programs aimed at children, which, through vaccines given by infection or by mouth, defend them against infection.

Our bodies have natural defences -- antibodies -- against diseases. The idea of immunization is to give us anti-bodies against those diseases for which we may have no natural resistance.

During pregnancy, a baby acquires certain protective antibodies from its mother through the placenta. Antibodies are also contained in the colostrum, a thin liquid produced by the breasts during the first few
days after birth. Colostrum helps to increase the baby's immunity to disease during the vulnerable early weeks and, even if the mother intends not to breast-feed, it is important that babies are put to the breast for the first few days to gain this protection.

Immunization through a vaccination or an oral dose is a way of giving children antibodies against those diseases to which they may not have natural immunity. The process is used particularly to protect children against what were formerly killer diseases. These diseases can still be fatal today, although, of course, medical knowledge and treatments have greatly improved.

A vaccine contains small parts (either live or killed) of the virus or bacteria which causes a disease. These have been treated so that they do not cause disease. When injected or given orally, they stimulate us to produce the necessary antibodies which will defend us against future infections.

Once we have the right anti-bodies we are usually immune from a disease for the rest of our life. Immunization programs are therefore aimed at children to protect them before they catch a disease and to set them up for the future. Some immunizations, though, need topping up and children may require boosters as they get older.



Immunization programs are available against nine childhood diseases, and immunization starts as early as two months. Many of these diseases are now so rare that you may feel there is no longer a threat. If immunization levels fall, however, they could well become common again.



The first infection is against Hib or Haemophilus influenzae type b, an infection which can cause the Hib form of meningitis, epiglottis ( a severe throat swelling that affects breathing ), pneumonia, blood poisoning and infections of bones and joints. Before immunization was available, Hib caused death or brain damage in the under-fives.



At the same time as a baby receives the Hib vaccine -- at two, three and four months -- he also gets a DTP jab and polio drops. DTP stands for diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis, which is better known as whooping cough.

Diphtheria is dangerous but now very rare. It starts as a sore throat but soon blocks the nose or throat, making breathing very difficult. It can last for weeks.

Tetanus is caused by germs from dirt getting into an open wound or burn. It attacks the nervous system, causing muscle spasms that can affect breathing. In serious cases, it can kill a child or indeed an adult.

Whooping cough is very infectious, causing long bouts of coughing, choking and vomiting that may continue for three or four weeks. With up to 50 bouts a day, it is very exhausting for children.

Polio, once known as infantile paralysis, attacks the nervous system and may often paralyse breathing and leg muscles. Damage can be permanent. Three doses of polio drops are given at the same time as Hib and DTP.



A single infection of MMR vaccine at 12 - 15 months protects against measles, mumps and rubella ( German measles ).

Measles is a highly infectious childhood illness, causing a fever and an uncomfortable rash. For about one child in 15 there can be serious complications, including encephalitis or inflammation of the brain, serious ear infections, bronchitis and pneumonia. Measles can be fatal.

Mumps is usually a mild illness causing swollen cheeks, but complications can occur. Boys suffer from painful swollen testicles and girls need to be immunized as it can cause an infection of the ovaries in sexually mature women.

Rubella is a mild illness for children but if a pregnant woman who is not immune catches it, her baby can be born deaf, blind and with heart and brain damage. This is why girls have an additional rubella infection at 10 - 14 years.


At the age of 3 - 5 years, children have boosters for diphtheria and tetanus, and a polio booster. The BCG injection against tuberculosis usually takes place at age 13, and school leavers have tetanus and polio boosters; tetanus should then be boosted every ten years.


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