, NAIROBI, Kenya, May 19 – If you’re like me, you bear a tiny scar on your arm from when you were a kid. Now that you’re older, you’re probably in the know that it was caused by the BCG vaccine; a vaccine given to guard against tuberculosis.
A small price to pay, I say, when you consider the alternative. But what about bigger trade-offs you might ask, is there a link between the measles vaccine and autism for example, or the combined vaccine against diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis (whooping cough) and sudden infant death syndrome?
No, there is no causal link in either case; those are fears rooted in disinformation or too little information as it were.
So why don’t we educate ourselves. First, what is a vaccine?
A vaccine is a substance used to provide immunity against disease and yes, most vaccines contain an attenuated form of the targeted pathogen with the view of stimulating the body’s immune system to create antibodies against the vaccine.
Why is this helpful? Because when your child is exposed to the pathogen in full-force, the body remembers and is able to launch a quick immune response.
The idea of deliberate infection might sound scary at first but let me stress that vaccines are created to simply imitate an infectious pathogen and thereby prepare the immune system to fend off a full-blown attack but do not themselves cause serious illness with the exception of mild symptoms such as fever.
Now that we have an idea of what vaccines are and how they work, let’s discuss the importance of timing, how is it decided when certain vaccines should be administered? Why do certain vaccines need to be administered more than once? And why do others require boosters?
As your healthcare provider has probably already communicated, it is important to ensure your child is immunised as indicated on the vaccine card.
Why is this important? Well, because in the case of the measles vaccine for instance, it may not be as effective if administered before the child is at least nine-months-old as the mother’s antibodies may still be present in the child’s body and prevent them from launching an effective immune response.
Another example is the rotavirus vaccine which if administered too early, puts your child at risk of intussusception.
So it is critical that you stick to the times set out in the vaccine card.
It’s also important that vaccines are administered as prescribed. The pneumonia vaccine for instance, needs to be administered at 6,10 and 14 weeks as does the human papilloma virus vaccine which is administered to girls between the ages of 12 and 13 in two doses as a safeguard against cervical cancer. The Diphtheria, Tetanus, and Pertussis (DTap) vaccine on the other hand needs a booster after the initial doses.
There you have it: the beginners guide to the what, how, when and why of vaccines. As they say, prevention is better than cure; just ask anyone who’s suffered paralysis for failure to receive the polio vaccine.