Infant vaccinations: what and why
Everything you need to know about vaccinations and childhood diseases.

The diseases and vaccinations explained

Hepatitis B

Hepatitis B is a viral infection of the liver and is very common in South Africa. It can be transmitted through child-to-child contact, most probably through weeping sores, cuts, bites, scrapes and scratches.

DTaP vaccine

  • Diphtheria (a severe respiratory infection) can be fatal as the infected mouth membrane can cause suffocation and the toxin may cause damage to the heart and brain. According to the South African Vaccination and Immunisation Centre (SAIVC), during the last 5 years, less than 10 cases of diphtheria have been reported in South Africa, as a result of high vaccination coverage.
  • Tetanus can be contracted from deep, dirty wounds. It’s often fatal and characterised by muscular spasms. The disease is caused by bacteria that usually enter the body through an open wound, or a newborn’s umbilical cord. The SAIVC states: “According to the WHO, South Africa, Namibia, Tanzania and Zimbabwe have potentially eliminated maternal and neonatal tetanus.”
  • Pertussis (whooping cough) is highly contagious and is spread through contact with an infected person. Most cases, and the majority of fatalities, are observed in infancy.

Polio vaccine

Even though the last confirmed case of polio in South Africa was in 1989, the threat of imported polio remains a possibility. It is for this reason that South Africa is intensifying its polio eradication strategy.

MMR vaccine

  • Measles is a highly contagious viral illness common in children between 3 and 10 years of age. Dr Sears says, “Measles causes several days of fever, aches, rash, and coughing, but most kids will work through the illness without much trouble. But there can be complications such as pneumonia (in about 1 in 100 cases), or the more severe encephalitis (infection within the brain), which occurs in about 1 in 1,000 cases. The fatality rate from measles is about 1 in 2,000 cases.
  • Mumps is a contagious viral infection that targets the salivary glands. Mumps causes swollen tonsils and facial glands, fever and rash, but most children get through it without much trouble.
  • Rubella (German measles) is common in children between the ages of 3 and 10 years. Dr Sears says, “Rubella is harmless to any child or adult who catches it but if a pregnant mom catches rubella it can cause birth defects.” The SAIVC states that in South Africa there were 117 reported cases in 2007.

Haemophilus influenza type B (Hib) disease

The greatest risk is in babies between the ages of 4 and 12 months. Hib is the dominant cause of non-epidemic meningitis in this age group, or less commonly, bacterial meningitis, which is life threatening.

Hepatitis A

Hepatitis A is a viral infection of the liver. Dr Sears adds, “This food-poisoning illness usually gets transmitted at restaurants. It’s a very mild disease in children. It isn’t fatal and doesn’t cause long-term complications.” Outbreaks of hepatitis A occur almost every year in South Africa.


The SAIVC states that there is little information regarding the risk of chickenpox in South Africa. Dr Sears says, “The fatality rate from this disease is very low – about 1 in 65,000 cases”.

Pneumococcal diseases

Pneumococcal diseases include infant and toddler meningitis, bloodstream infections, and pneumonia. The SAIVC states that there is a lack of information about the risk in developing countries, although globally, from an estimated annual 1,609,000 fatalities, 841,000 occur in children under the age of 5, according to the WHO.

Optional vaccines

In South Africa, a number of optional vaccines are available in the private sector. The most common of these is the MMR, which takes the place of the measles vaccination. Others include:

Varicella (chickenpox)

The Varilrix vaccine against chickenpox is a live vaccine, regarded as being around 95% effective. It will also prevent your child contracting shingles in later life.

Dosage: from 9 months to (and including) 12 years, 1 dose. From 13 years and older, two doses with at least six weeks between them.

Pneumococcal disease

All infants and children between the ages of 6 weeks and 9 years can be vaccinated with the Prevenar vaccine against this bacterial form of pneumonia. If contracted, streptococcus pneumonia can cause meningitis, pneumonia, blood infections and middle-ear infections.

Dosage: Children under 15 months receive 4 doses. The first may be given at 6 to 8 weeks, with intervals of 4 to 8 weeks between doses. Older children or late starters receive 2 doses one month apart, followed by a booster dose after the first birthday.

Hepatitis A

Hep A vaccines are not licensed for use in children younger than 1. In South Africa, Avaxim 80 is commonly used. Recently, a combination Hep A and Hep B vaccine, called Twinrix, was made available. It’s given in three doses, using a 0-, 1-, and 6-month schedule.

Dosage: A primary dose of the vaccine can be given to children over age 1. This is followed by a booster dose 6 to 18 months later.


The Rotarix vaccination can be given from 6 weeks of age. This vaccine will protect your child from the most severe forms of gastroenteritis and should be given before 6 months of age. Dr Sears says, “This oral liquid vaccine protects against the vomiting and diarrhoea intestinal illness, which is very common.”

Dosage: The vaccine is given orally as a single dose.

Top 5 truths about MMR

  1. MMR immunisation is the safest way to protect children against measles, mumps and rubella.
  2. Over 500 million doses of MMR have been used in 90 countries around the world since the 1970s. According to The World Health Organization, MMR is a highly effective vaccine with an outstanding safety record.
  3. No country in the world recommends giving MMR vaccine as three separate injections.
  4. Children who are not immunised with MMR increase the chance that others will get the diseases.
  5. Evidence proves that MMR vaccine does not cause autism or inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). There are now numerous studies that do not support a link between autism and IBD and the MMR vaccine.

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