During African Vaccination Week, which runs from April 23 to 29, the Government Employees Medical Scheme (GEMS) encourages the public to help prevent the spread of illness and disease through immunization. The theme for this year’s campaign is “Vaccines work, do your part”.
“Vaccinations provide effective protection against a number of serious illnesses such as polio, diphtheria, mumps, measles and tetanus, among others. We should all ensure that our families, children in particular, are vaccinated in line with the recommendations of the Department of Health,” says Dr Vuyo Gqola, GEMS Executive: Healthcare Management.
“There are additional vaccines available, such as the influenza vaccine, that are optional and can help support the immune system in resisting specific infectious viruses and bacteria that pose significant health risks.”
African Vaccination Week, which forms part of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) international effort to prevent the spread of dangerous diseases through raising awareness about the importance of vaccines, emphasises that vaccines can significantly improve the health of communities if enough people are vaccinated.
“Personal health and community health are deeply interrelated. When people get vaccinated against a particular illness or disease, they are not only protecting themselves but are also helping to protect their communities. This is because when more people develop immunity to a particular infectious disease, the fewer opportunities for it to be passed on to other people who may be more susceptible,” says Dr Gqola.
“The medical progress that has been made in the prevention of diseases through vaccinations is truly remarkable, and we are fortunate to live in a time when we have access to these life-saving resources. Let us not forget that measles and polio were once common conditions, which are now relatively rare thanks to vaccination programmes.”
She points out that the influenza (flu) vaccine for 2018 is now available to all members and GEMS has allocated a special benefit for preventative care services that members can claim the flu vaccine from. “The influenza season has come round once again, and fortunately there is a safe and effective vaccine available that provides protection against a number of strains of the flu virus.”
The following categories of people have a greater risk of falling seriously ill with influenza and developing complications:
- Adults 65 years and older
- Children younger than five years old, but especially children younger than two years old
- Pregnant women
- People with underlying health conditions, including asthma, diabetes, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease among others
- People with weakened immune systems, including people living with HIV or those taking medicines that suppress immune function.
“People who are considered to be at risk should also have the pneumococcal vaccine once every five years. The vaccine protects against pneumonia, a common secondary infection that can develop as a complication of influenza,” she advises.
GEMS covers the pneumococcal vaccine from the preventative care benefit for all at risk beneficiaries on all options, in line with the Scheme rules, formularies and available benefits.
“The risks associated with vaccinations are extremely rare, and are hugely outweighed by the risks of developing the illness itself if one is not vaccinated. Talk to your general practitioner about which vaccinations you and your children should have, as a tiny percentage of people are severely allergic to certain ingredients contained in some types of vaccine,” she recommends.
In 2014, the South African Department of Health rolled out a school–based Human Papillomavirus (HVP) vaccination campaign for the prevention of cervical cancer, aimed at all girls aged nine years and older.
“There is an established link between certain strains of HPV and cervical cancer, which is a leading cause of death for women in South Africa. The girls who have received the HPV vaccine will have a considerably reduced risk of developing cervical cancer and several other types of cancer.”
“We are likely to start seeing the positive impact of this campaign in the next 15 to 20 years, when the first generation of girls to have received the HPV vaccination will reach the age where these types of cancer are more likely to develop,” Dr Gqola says.
While no vaccine to protect against HIV has been clinically proven yet, there is a significant global research effort focused on developing such a vaccination. “We hope that one day our grandchildren will benefit from an HIV vaccine and that they may only learn about the devastating effects of HIV/AIDS in history books. For now, we must rely on awareness of the importance of prevention of HIV through other methods, such as practicing safe sex and avoiding contact with bodily fluids.
“It is in the best interests of our children’s welfare, ourselves, our communities, and our country to stop diseases in their tracks through ensuring we are vaccinated against illnesses that can be prevented through this means. If we work together and embrace prevention measures such as vaccinations, South Africa will be a healthier and more prosperous country for generations to come,” Dr Gqola concludes.