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.
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
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.
DTP AND POLIO
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
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 -
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.