As the start of the 2004/05 school year approaches, the Ministry of Health has stepped up its immunization drive and is encouraging parents to ensure that their children are fully immunized before sending them out to school.
In an interview with JIS News, Dr. Christine Hammond-Gabbadon, Acting Director of the Family Health Services Unit in the Ministry, explained that under the law, schools should not admit children who were not fully immunized for their age. She said that parents should take the child's original immunization card along with a copy, to the school where he/she has been admitted, submit the copy and keep the original in a safe place.
She further pointed out, that the schools were aware of what the immunization schedule for the various age cohorts should be and if parents were unsure of whether or not their children were fully immunized for their age, then they should consult their public health nurse to be advised of what was needed and have their schedule updated.
"If you have been getting immunizations at an health centre, then they have a tracking register and if you have lost the card, you can get back the information from the health centre you have been to before. By law, the schools are not allowed to take the child in without immunization and the parents are not allowed to say they don't want their child to get it. There might be certain exceptions for medical reasons, but that's about it," Dr. Hammond-Gabbadon elaborated.
Medical exemptions include cases where children are immuno compromised, that is, if the child is receiving treatment for diseases of the immune system such as HIV/AIDS or cancer.
"Then, you wouldn't want to give a live vaccine. Vaccines are killed or very weakened parts of the germ so if somebody has an immune system disease, that would reduce their immune levels, so they can't react in the normal way to the vaccine and there are certain vaccines that we would not give, such as the oral polio and the live measles vaccine," she explained.
She informed that the Ministry, in keeping with its public education drive, would be posting reminders in the media for parents to have their children immunized before the school year begins.
To facilitate this process, the Ministry is offering daily immunization at its regional health centres, which already have set days on which they conduct child welfare visits or 'baby clinics', where parents bring their children to be immunized. Dr. Hammond-Gabbadon notes that the special immunization thrust that began last week would continue this week.
She told JIS News, that the number of children being targeted in specific age cohorts was in the region of 60,000, which would include children in basic schools, those entering grade one and those entering high schools. "The immunization law speaks to children up to age seven. By law, they have to be fully immunized for school, which means the primary series and the two boosters at 18 months and age four (respectively). By the time a child enters grade one, they would have had these," she said.
Dr. Hammond-Gabbadon pointed out that full immunization for an 18 month old child was different from full immunization for a six year-old and as such, the Ministry was no longer stamping the card 'fully immunized', because, "if you are one year old and you have had your one year old shot, then you are fully immunized, but at 18 months if you don't get that booster, then you are not fully immunized," she said.
Dr. Hammond-Gabbadon said that the aim of the Family Health Unit was to achieve at least 90 per cent coverage for children 12 to 23 months and that this thrust had been going fairly well with coverage presently at 80 per cent.
Noting the importance of being immunized, she said that it was to prevent persons from contracting life threatening or debilitating illnesses. She pointed out that although some diseases, such as measles, had been eliminated from the region, it had not been eradicated from the world. "You can have an imported case. If our population immunization coverage isn't up, then it can be reintroduced and we could have an outbreak. It is the same with polio," she stated, adding, "we have to be accountable for our immunization coverage.take your children to get immunized. It's a key to good health."
The vaccines being offered include BCG (against tuberculosis); DPT (against diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis); as well as immunization against polio, measles, mumps and rubella. Last year, the Pentavalent vaccine for children up to one year old was introduced at a cost of $60 million. It protects against Hepatitis B. The Haemophilus Influenza Type B vaccine, which protects against meningitis, pneumonia, and infections of the blood, bones, and joints is also new. The Pentavalent and Haemophilus vaccines must be administered to children by age four but it is not expected that those entering school this year would have received it.
At the launch of Vaccination in the Americas Week 2004 in April, Minister of Health John Junor stressed that vaccination remained a priority for the Ministry and government as a whole, stating, "this is one of the programmes that are so critical to ensuring that we achieve and remain in the sort of health status that Jamaica has become known".
Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO) Representative, Dr. Earnest Pate, who also spoke at the launch, said the progress that had been made in immunization since the early 1980's was quite significant and that the Ministry of Health had been at the forefront of that change.
In this region of the Americas, the last polio incident was recorded in 1982, while in Peru, the last case was in 1991, making this region of the Americas the first to be declared polio free. Some 175 countries globally are polio free.
Dr. Pate noted that the measles eradication campaign in the Caribbean had been doing well to date and congratulated Jamaica in particular for its progress. He noted that immunization coverage in most of the Caribbean countries was much higher than in most other countries in the world.
In fact, he noted, because of the excellent experience in the region, PAHO had used Caribbean countries as a testing ground. These positive results, he said, had been used as the prototype to carry out immunization campaigns in other parts of the world.
When the immunization progamme first began in Jamaica, fewer than 25 per cent of Jamaican children were fully immunized by age one. Diseases such as polio, measles, and rubella were still prevalent.
Today, Jamaica's immunization programme is highly developed, ranking the country as the leading Caribbean country in terms of the number of children immunized. Eighty per cent of children in Jamaica are fully vaccinated and polio and indigenous cases of measles and rubella have been eradicated.