JIS News

Director of Family Health Services in the Ministry of Health, Dr. Karen Lewis-Bell, has called on young mothers to immunize their infants in order to minimize exposure to life threatening diseases, which kill an estimated three million children worldwide every year.
Dr. Lewis-Bell, who spoke to JIS News in a recent interview, pointed to a decline in the Ministry’s immunization programme, with the average national coverage last year at 77 per cent, down from a high of 90 per cent in past years.
“We have been slipping,” she lamented, citing statistics, which showed a drop in BCG coverage to 84 per cent, while vaccination for polio and hepatitis B had declined to 71 per cent and 76 per cent, respectively. The doctor blamed the decline on the generation of young mothers, who have little or no knowledge of the devastation wreaked by outbreaks of diseases such as poliomyelitis in 1982. Approximately 18,000 persons were estimated to have been affected by poliomyelitis that year, and 20 cases of death and 60 cases of paralysis were recorded. “They [mothers of today] don’t have a mental picture of how bad these diseases can be, and therefore there has been complacency,” she opined.
In addition, she noted that with the emergence of HIV and other chronic/non-communicable diseases, “people have forgotten that some of these vaccine preventable diseases like poliomyelitis, measles, and diphtheria are still around.”
Dr. Lewis-Bell listed polio, diphtheria, whooping cough, tetanus, pneumonia and meningitis as diseases that infants and young children could contract if not given the appropriate vaccines during their early years.
She warned that these illnesses could be fatal. “Not only do they cause illness but they cause death or a lot of consequences (and) if the person does not die, there can be paralysis, mental retardation, so these diseases are quite serious,” she pointed out.
The Ministry of Health provides vaccines free of cost to parents and Dr. Lewis-Bell is encouraging all mothers to have their infants vaccinated at their first post-natal visit at six weeks, then at three months, at five or six months, and then when the child is one-year old.
The first three vaccines given to the infant includes the polio and pentavalent vaccine, and the haemophilus influenza Type B vaccine. The latter vaccine, according to the doctor, is administered to prevent meningitis, pneumonia and ear infections. “With immunization, either a weakened or killed form of the germ that causes the disease is introduced into the body,” the doctor explained, noting that the process strengthened the body’s immune response by producing special proteins known as antibodies.
The antibodies help the body to ward off diseases if exposed to the natural germ. Furthermore, she said, the antibodies were circulated in the blood and would recognise the germ as a foreign substance and protect against the germ by replicating in numbers in the body.
Under the Public Health Act, all children less than seven years of age are to be vaccinated before they are allowed to enter school. The law extends beyond primary-level schooling and includes early childhood institutions such as day care centres, nurseries and basic schools.
Dr. Lewis-Bell said that while “we [the Health Ministry] have the law and can prosecute under the law, we would rather try to educate the parents and explain to them the reason so they can make an informed decision and come in willingly to have their children vaccinated.”
The Ministry of Health, she informed, has a network of over 350 health centres across the island where vaccinations are provided.

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