Infectious diseases used to be the major cause of infant mortality in the times before vaccinations and immunisations became prevalent. But ever since doctors started using immunisation programmes that include administering vaccines either orally or through injections, to strengthen the immune system to fight against malicious invaders, infections like meningitis, measles and tetanus have ceased to be the widespread killers they used to be. One disease that has been completely eradicated through vaccinations is small pox. A range of highly effective methods have been developed to strengthen the immune system, and if children are immunised early, they can be protected from the risk of contracting any infection.
“Prevention is better than cure” is the most famous health adage, and that is exactly the purpose that immunisation serves. It prepares the body in advance to fight the myriad infections and diseases that the human being is susceptible to. Immunisation is carried out by administering vaccines mostly through injections. These may be dead or weakened forms of disease-causing micro-organisms (bacteria or viruses) which stimulate the body to produce disease-fighting antibodies against a particular infection. In the process, the immune system is prepared to recognise and defeat the bacteria or virus if the child should encounter it at a later stage. Thus vaccination can give a child long-term protection against diseases that either cannot be treated or infections that spread so rapidly that treatment is ineffective. Each infection requires a different vaccine because the immune system produces specific antibodies to defeat each invader. For most diseases in children, several vaccinations may be needed for the immune system of the body to maintain the required level of protective antibodies.
Side-effects of vaccinations
Most vaccines produce almost no side effects – the polio, diphtheria and tetanus vaccines are very safe for children. However, other vaccines, particularly MMR, are capable of causing mild forms of the very diseases they are meant to fight against. Some side effects common to all immunisations are:
- A mild fever lasting 24-48 hours after children are immunised. The fever may go away if they are given a dose of paracetamol syrup.
- A localised allergic reaction, causing redness, swelling and pain at the point of injection. This usually subsides in a few days without causing any lasting effect on children.
The MMR vaccine may cause the following side effects:
- A fever and a rash akin to measles, which can occur even one week after vaccination.
- A swelling in the salivary glands lasting for up to three weeks after vaccination.
- Sore joints lasting for two-three weeks after vaccination.
The pertussis (whooping cough) vaccine has a very slight risk of causing brain damage, but the infection is likely to cause more damage than the vaccine. Some studies suggest a link between MMR and autism, but these have not been substantiated. Generally it is considered safer for children to be vaccinated than not, with most people tending to think that the advantages of vaccination outweigh the risks.