says despite Covid-19, GPs are immunising as normal against a number of illnesses. There is no need for parents to be afraid.
WHILE children may be at less risk of Covid-19, the risk of contracting other preventable infectious diseases remains.
More than 117m children around the world may miss out on a life-saving vaccine against measles because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
This was the stark warning from the global Measles & Rubella Initiative last month as health services around the world focus their attention on the current outbreak of coronavirus.
Closer to home, the HSE is appealing for parents to stick with vaccination schedules for their children so that we can, collectively as a nation, keep diseases like measles, mumps, polio, and whooping cough at bay.
During a recent awareness campaign to mark World Immunisation Week, Dr Lucy Jessop, Director of the HSE National Immunisation Office, cautioned that delaying vaccines puts parents and children at unnecessary risk of preventable diseases.
These warnings come as we are seeing a resurgence in some common childhood illnesses, such as measles.
Despite the availability of a safe and effective measles vaccine for more than 50 years, the disease took more than 140,000 lives globally in 2018.
Measles outbreaks across Europe last year led to 13,200 cases and 10 deaths.
In Ireland, the number of cases of measles and mumps has been rising in recent years - 2,632 cases of mumps and 16 cases of measles were reported in the first four months of 2020.
Experts say that many of these cases can be prevented through vaccination programmes, which can ensure individuals and communities are protected.
More important than ever
As the search continues for a Covid-19 vaccine, the pandemic has brought home the importance of vaccines and how they save lives.
Vaccines contain a modified form of a virus or bacteria that will not cause disease but will ‘teach’ your immune system how to respond if you contract the real virus or bacteria.
Under the HSE's national immunisation programme, a number of vaccines are made freely available to expectant mothers and children through GP practices.
Vaccines for babies are recommended at two, four, six, 12 and 13 months of age and protect against 13 diseases, including meningitis and polio.
Children should also get the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine at 12 months of age and again at four to five years of age.
A number of other vaccines are also available for school-going children but are currently on hold due to the coronavirus outbreak.
Parenting expert with BabyDoc Club, an online community for mums, Laura Erskine, says many parents are keeping up vaccination appointments for their children and babies despite the pandemic.
GP practices are quieter because of the viral outbreak, she says, making it a good time for parents to avail of vaccinations for children.
An online poll by the parenting group last week found that more than 80% of 884 new mums surveyed were not put off attending their GP during lockdown.
“We asked our BabyDoc Club mums if the pandemic had made them realise the importance of their baby’s routine vaccines and 91% said it had.
“A further 82% of mums said that Covid-19 had not stopped them from visiting their GP to get their vaccines for fear of infection. While 92% of BabyDoc Club mums said they were keeping on top of their baby’s vaccine schedule.” Laura says.
Research, she adds, has shown that some vaccines may also provide an additional boost to the immune system against other illnesses.
“Now more than ever we understand as a nation, the importance of vaccines and the concept of herd immunity," says Laura, a mum of three.
"We would recommend that parents do their research and seek advice from a qualified medical professional before taking any decision to opt out of our national childhood vaccine programme."
On the frontline, GPs are taking extra precautions against coronavirus to ensure the health and safety of parents and children, and all patients, attending routine vaccinations or other medical appointments.
Dr Brian Higgins from the Galway Primary Care clinic says there is no need for patients to fear attending GP surgeries during the pandemic.
Practice staff are taking calls from parents before vaccination appointments and can provide reassurance that surgeries are safe to attend, he says.
Generally, patients are being seen by appointment only and are also being screened for Covid-19 symptoms. Where patients have respiratory symptoms they are being seen in isolation rooms and at designated clinics later in the day.
Practice staff are also wearing personal protective equipment where necessary and rooms are deep cleaned every day.
Dr Higgins says parents are still attending with their children for vaccination appointments: “We’re really proactive about vaccinations and we haven’t seen a fall-off in parents attending with children to date,” he says.
“GPs are micro-managing their surgeries to make sure if they are bringing in vulnerable children or vulnerable elderly people that they are doing so in the safest way possible,” he adds.
Dr Higgins advises parents to keep up vaccination appointments and to phone their GP if they have any questions. “It is safer to get your vaccine in a protected environment like the GP surgery than to do nothing or stay at home and hope for the best.”
Dr Higgins says GPs are seeing a return of common childhood diseases, like mumps and measles, because of a fall in the vaccine uptake rate in recent years.
So far this year his practice has seen five cases of mumps, which can have long-term impacts for children and teenagers.
“We’ve done a lot of work to get rid of these diseases and making the mistake of not getting these vaccines or delaying them could have a number of long-term negative effects,” he says.
There is no room for complacency in dealing with highly infectious diseases like measles, which is more infectious than Covid-19, Dr Higgins says. “Measles is an incredibly infectious disease.
If you have measles and, for example, are travelling on the Luas and there are one hundred people on the carriage; if you’re coughing, by the time you get off the carriage 90 people will have contracted measles from you if they are not vaccinated.
His advice to parents concerned about Covid-19 is to call their GP in advance of any scheduled appointments.
The HSE is recommending that parents continue with vaccination appointments for babies but has also advised that school vaccinations are on hold for the moment and are not available from GPs.
Further information and advice on the availability of vaccines during the pandemic can be found on the HSE website at https://www.hse.ie/eng/health/immunisation/whoweare/vacccovid19.html