The Great Vaccination Debate

The Great Vaccination Debate | Medical Aid News |


The vaccination debate has been around for decades, but recently the anti-vaccination movement has gained momentum in South Africa. With celebrities adding their voices to the debate, it’s drawing arguments from all sides, even though there is currently no scientific evidence proving the harmful effects of vaccines. Although the Health Department strongly recommends vaccination, it is not compulsory, and an increasing number of people are choosing not to vaccinate their children.


What exactly does a vaccine do?


Vaccines work by giving your immune system the tools to fight disease-causing germs when they come into contact with them. Before vaccines, people became immune by contracting a disease and surviving it, which unfortunately wasn’t very common. Now that we have vaccines, their purpose is to build your body’s resistance to potential life-threatening diseases so that they can be prevented entirely.


Vaccines don’t contain an entire virus, they contain an inactive part of it. This means that the part of the virus that makes you ill is deactivated, but your body still reacts to it by creating antibodies to fight it off in the event that you come into contact with it. Therefore the vaccine does not typically make you ill. If in the rare event you have a general reaction to a vaccine, symptoms can include a mild temperature, headache, feeling slightly unwell or soreness where the vaccine was administered.


The rise of the anti-vaccination movement


A big influence on the fear of vaccines was a study published in the British medical journal, The Lancet, in 1998. The study, undertaken and written by Andrew Wakefield alleged that the MMR (mumps, measles and rubella) vaccine could cause autism. This study was ultimately withdrawn, heavily criticised, the results disproved, and the former doctor taken off the medical roll. Twenty studies have been undertaken since the original one, and all have proved the MMR vaccine does not cause autism. Meanwhile, the media coverage of the study swayed public opinion and many people stopped vaccinating their children.


Another idea that has caught on is that if you live a healthy life where you eat all the right food and take care of yourself, you can rely on your body’s natural immune defences to protect you against harmful diseases. While this does ring somewhat true for a mild cold and flu, Dr Neil Gower, national secretary of the Homoeopathic Association of South Africa, emphasises that deadly diseases such as measles, mumps and tuberculosis (TB) can affect anyone, regardless of their health. If you come into contact and contract a disease that is resistant to medication, relying on your immune system alone to fight it might not work. Gower points to the case of HIV in South Africa, and how many lives it has taken due to the lack of a cure or vaccine for it.


The Great Vaccination Debate | Vaccine Injection


In support of vaccination


While vaccination is a voluntary decision in South Africa, and no one can force a parent or guardian to vaccinate a child, a large amount of scientific evidence points towards both the individual and societal benefits of immunisation. Many people grew up free of the infections of polio and measles which spread like wildfire in the 1950s and 1970s respectively. These diseases are now rare thanks to their successful vaccination programmes.


An example is the meningitis epidemic which was dramatically reduced in Africa due to the Meningitis Vaccine Project (MVP). This disease causes brain damage, loss of hearing, and death if untreated. During the 1990s, the meningitis epidemic occurred every year in what is known as the African meningitis belt, which stretches from Senegal to Ethiopia (26 sub-Saharan countries). In 1997, there were 250 000 cases and 25 000 reported deaths due to the disease. After the mass introduction of a new, affordable vaccine, the cycle of this epidemic was broken. The more people that are vaccinated, the less risk there is of an epidemic, as two to three million deaths per year are prevented globally by effective immunisation.


In South Africa, one of our most pressing concerns is the eradication of HIV/AIDS. There are currently no vaccines available to prevent the disease, but scientists are working on it. A vaccine has been created by Barbara Ensoli at the National Institute of Health Italy. While the vaccine cannot prevent the disease yet, a trial study of 200 participants on antiretroviral treatment in South Africa, has proved that it can target the Tat protein which is responsible for replicating and progressing the virus. The vaccine induces the release of antibodies that are capable of neutralising this harmful protein.


Vaccinating one's children is a deeply personal choice but it is always best to discuss the options with a health practitioner who can determine how best to administer vaccines to suit your family. While we all try to keep our families as healthy as possible, there comes a time when your loved ones will catch a germ going around and medical costs can be expensive, particularly when they are unexpected. Investing in Medical Aid can give you peace of mind knowing you have the funds available to assist with treatment.

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