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New vaccines on the way

Few people remember the polio epidemics in Johannesburg in the first half of the 20th century, or the many thousands of child deaths attributed to whooping cough in South Africa during the same time period.

Thanks to vaccines childhood killers are a thing of the past in South Africa. Smallpox has been eradicated, polio largely controlled, and measles and rubella have been targeted for elimination in the near future – thanks to national and global vaccination programmes.

Bacterial meningitis is becoming rare in countries that vaccinate their children. Reduction of pneumonia is now possible both in infants and in the elderly. Several forms of cancer caused by viruses can now be prevented.

Such research and development has resulted in the development of more than 35 vaccines, many of which protect against fatal and permanently disabling diseases. Many of these achievements have been accomplished through the deployment of vaccines, particularly over the past 50 years.

Globally, vaccines are considered to have changed the face of medical treatment by drastically reducing the proportion of deaths caused by infectious diseases and, more generally, also to have greatly reduced the incidence of infectious diseases. Today, vaccines have an excellent safety record.

Since 2009, South Africa has added to the national childhood immunisation programme vaccines that target diarrhoeal disease and pneumonia – two of the biggest childhood killers in the country. A “critical decline” in invasive pneumococcal disease among children and adults in South Africa has been attributed to the effects of the vaccine, according to the National Health Laboratory Services in 2012. Thousands fewer children were admitted to hospital with diarrhoeal disease during the first two years of the introduction of the rotavirus vaccines on the national programme.

The number of vaccine injections recommended for administration in a child’s first two years of life has increased dramatically during the past two decades. In 1980, infants received just five injections during their first two years of life. By contrast, by the year 2000 in the US, that number had increased to as many as 20, according to research by PA Offit, J Quarles, MA Gerber and others.

Based on the amount of research and development taking place, it is expected that many more vaccinations will be added to childhood schedules in the coming years, thereby increasing the number of diseases prevented – though inevitably also increasing the number of injections needed.

Even in South Africa, improvements are expected: innovative combination vaccines are today able to reduce the number of injections needed while allowing for additional immunisations to be given.

For instance, in the current South African Expanded Programme of Immunisation (EPI) the number of injections needed by the age of two, had combination vaccines not been available, would have been 30. However, thanks to the use of innovative combination vaccines in the EPI, this number has been reduced to 10, according to the national Department of Health’s revised EPI schedule of December 2015.

The research and development of new vaccines is ongoing and indeed accelerating. For instance, the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations now reports that more than 300 new vaccines are in development stage. These vaccines are targeting infectious diseases, cancer, neurological disorders and allergies, among other diseases.

However, most exciting for people living in Southern Africa is that significant research and development continues for vaccines for HIV, tuberculosis and malaria – infectious diseases that remain the region’s biggest killers.

Article supplied by the Innovative Pharmaceutical Authority, Dr Konji Sebati

Last Updated on 18 October 2016 by HPCSA Corporate Affairs