Vaccine hope against pneumonia
Durban - A protein vaccine, still under development, could turn the tide on one of the biggest childhood killers in South Africa and, if all goes according to plan, it will cost less than R10 a dose.
Speaking at the 16th International Congress on Infectious Diseases at the Cape Town International Convention Centre, Mark Alderson – the director of an international pneumococcal vaccine project – says the vaccine has affordability as a major priority and it could tackle “one of the biggest killers in the developing world, namely pneumonia”.
While it could take a few more years before the vaccine was available, it also had the potential to reduce pneumonia significantly among adults.
“This is what we call herd immunity,” he explained. “It is when vaccinations among children result in a big drop in infection in adults who themselves weren’t vaccinated.”
This could have a significant impact on South Africa: According to Statistics SA, in 2011 (the year with the latest statistics available on mortality and causes of death) almost 5 000 children died of flu and pneumonia and of those, approximately 3 000 died before the age of one. The only bigger killer among children is diarrhoea.
Of the population across all age groups, a total of nearly 35 000 people died from pneumonia and flu in that same year, and of those nearly 26 000 were classified as black African according to statistics that disaggregate by population groups.
The World Health Organisation says that “seasonal influenza spreads easily and can rapidly sweep through schools” including crèches and early childhood development centres where high volumes of children are in contact in small spaces.
“When one infected child coughs, infected droplets get into the air and another child can breathe them in and be exposed. The virus can also be spread by hands contaminated with influenza viruses. To prevent transmission, people should cover their mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing, and wash their hands regularly,” the organisation says.
Children living in shacks are particularly vulnerable to influenza and pneumonia, says Mncedisi Twala, chairman of the Western Cape Anti Eviction Campaign.
“Many children in shacks catch flu or get pneumonia because of the nature of the houses,” he says, “These are not structures which are built properly and at night, water seeps in, especially during the rainy season. Even if it isn’t raining, people end up sleeping next to windows and doors which aren’t properly sealed.”
Another problem, says Twala, is that adults get sick and then, because of overcrowding, the virus “moves quickly from one family member to another”.
“Parents make the effort to take their children to the clinic for flu,” he explains, “and the children get medication, but when they return home, conditions are the same as before.”
Public health expert Dr Costa Gazi says another major factor is nutrition.
“Among poorer children there is a generally low resistance.
“They tend to live in crowded conditions, and also have a generally low resistance.” - The Mercury