Vaccines protect against flu and other serious illnesses


African Vaccination Week - the last week in April each year - highlights that it is every person's right to be protected from disease. With flu season fast approaching, it is important to get vaccinated against this and other potentially serious diseases.

Celebrating more than 200 years of vaccines

As we mark African Vaccination Week, we look back at the history of vaccines and how they have protected against several life-threatening diseases.

The first official vaccine was developed more than 200 years ago, in 1796, by British physician Edward Jenner. He used cowpox material to create immunity to smallpox. The vaccine was changed over the years and eventually led to the eradication of smallpox.

However, there is evidence that the Chinese may have used a smallpox inoculation more than 1,000 years ago. Since then, several vaccines have been developed, including ones for rabies, diphtheria and tetanus.

Many severe diseases wiped out by vaccines

Dr Noluthando Nematswerani, Head of the Centre for Clinical Excellence at Discovery Health, points out that many serious conditions, such as smallpox, polio, and whooping cough, have been largely eradicated because of vaccines.

"My brother was born with polio 50 years ago. We saw many children with polio in Mthatha, where I grew up. They wore orthopaedic shoes, had one limb shorter than the other, or used callipers to stand upright, because their muscles were weak," she says.

"We don't see devastation from diseases such as polio anymore because they've been almost eradicated by vaccines. These days, when we do see an outbreak of diseases such as measles, it usually comes from unvaccinated children."

Important vaccinations for childhood and beyond

Vaccines play an important role in protecting people from getting seriously ill or dying from infectious diseases. Most of these vaccines are given during infancy and childhood.

South Africa's Department of Health's expanded programme on immunisation (EPI) has a schedule of the vaccines that children should have from birth until the age of 12. Some of the diseases these vaccines protect against are polio, rotavirus, diphtheria, tetanus, hepatitis B and measles.

Dr Nematswerani advocates for children to get vaccinated in line with the EPI schedule. "Childhood vaccinations are so important because they protect our children from infectious diseases and give them the best chance to live a healthy life," she says.

Dr Nematswerani also recommends that the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine is given to young girls to reduce their risk of getting cervical cancer.

Pneumococcal vaccines, which reduce the chances of getting pneumonia and certain other respiratory infections, are given to babies and the elderly. These two groups are particularly vulnerable to becoming severely sick from these respiratory illnesses.

Other vaccines that Dr Nematswerani recommends are the herpes zoster vaccine, which protects against shingles in the elderly, and travel vaccines such as yellow fever for people who are travelling to high-risk countries.

Is it a cold? Is it the flu? Could it be COVID-19?

These are the questions that run through our heads the moment we have a sore throat, cough or runny nose these days.

Flu season here. And, while many people feel a bit 'vaccined-out', there's no denying that the flu vaccine saves lives. It is especially important for children, the elderly, pregnant women and people with chronic conditions.

And, while many people feel a bit 'vaccined-out', there's no denying that the flu vaccine saves lives. It is especially important for children, the elderly, pregnant women and people with chronic conditions.

"There's data to show that, once people with underlying chronic conditions are immunised against the flu, their outcomes are much better than for people who are not immunised," says Dr Nematswerani.

Deadly flu kills 11,000 people in South Africa each year

Flu season hasn't been particularly bad in the past two years. This is because COVID-19 lockdown restrictions helped prevent the spread of viruses. However, cautions Dr Nematswerani, lab reports from January show an increase in respiratory illnesses and common cold viruses.

"These infections are returning to pre-COVID-19 levels, which means that this flu season could see a notable number of infections, and we need to prepare for that," she says.

Although the flu took a backseat during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr Nematswerani warns that it is still a potentially fatal illness. "Before COVID-19, we were losing around 11,000 people in South Africa to the flu every winter. Globally, just over half a million people were dying from flu-related complications each year."

Get vaccinated against the flu and COVID-19 at the same time

The flu vaccine is the best way to prevent serious illness from the flu. The National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) explains that the influenza virus changes constantly, which is why a new vaccination is made available each year.

The vaccine offers protection two to three weeks after you get it, so it's best to get your shot in March or early April, well before the flu season starts. However, the NICD notes that "it is never too late to vaccinate".

People with certain chronic conditions are at higher risk of becoming very sick from the flu, and Dr Nematswerani points out that they should prioritise getting the flu vaccine. This includes people with diabetes and those with kidney, heart and lung diseases. The flu vaccine will also protect pregnant women and their unborn babies from serious flu. The babies will benefit from the antibodies passed to them from their mothers. Babies can get the flu vaccine when they are six months old.

Log in

Please click here to login into Discovery Digital Id

Please click here to login into Discovery Digital Id