File photo: Towards the second half of the 21st century, vaccinations also increased. Picture: AP

Don't believe the negative press. Have your child vaccinated, an allergy expert tells Marchelle Abrahams.

"Immunisation is one of the greatest and most effective medical interventions in human history, and has saved millions of lives, especially amongst children below the age of 5 years against serious childhood diseases that are preventable by using vaccines routinely,” said Minister of Health Dr Aaron Motsoaledi this week as he urged parents across South Africa to take advantage of the free vaccinations on offer at the country’s public health clinics.

April 23 - April 29 marks African Vaccination Week. The campaign is aimed at raising awareness about the importance and effectiveness of vaccines. It also gives parents, who cannot afford it, access to free vaccinations to immunize children against preventable diseases such as measles and polio.

But childhood vaccines have always been on the receiving end of bad press. Ever since the MMR scare in the UK, medical experts say the scaremongering caused far-reaching effects, even alluding to the fact that 2 million children risked catching measles in 2013 because of the aftermath.

By 1998 the sensational findings of Andrew Wakefield, the doctor whose research led to fears about a link with autism, were discredited.

But now there’s a new theory that could have the same consequences.

In recent years there’s been an increase in childhood allergies. Towards the second half of the 21st century, vaccinations also increased.

This prompted scientists to examine whether there might be a link. Vaccines Today then went on to compile a comprehensive database, detailing every study done on the possible link. Their conclusion?

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“To date, there is no evidence showing a link,” they noted.

Pediatric allergy expert Prof Claudia Gray agrees, and says in no uncertain terms that despite the negative press, “most of it is completely unfounded”.

She then alludes to the dangers of parents not vaccinating their children because of what they read. “Vaccines are absolutely imperative to reduce the prevalence of severe childhood illness,” she advises.

“And that is why I always advocate childhood vaccinations. The advantages far outweigh the disadvantages. Rumours and speculations on the behavioral effects are unfounded and have been refuted.”

But then why the increase in allergies?

Prof Gray explains that there are many reasons, such as changes in dietary patterns over the past few decades. The so called “hygiene hypothesis” could be a contributing factor. “Our immune systems are no longer infected with as many diseases, and we’re living more cleanly,” she adds.

This means we are not exposed to the same variety of bacteria as we used to be. Exposure to a variety bacteria and viruses stimulates the immune system to function well. “So now, the immune system is rerouted, fighting things like food allergens for instance.”

Gray concludes: “It’s the cleaner living hypothesis.”