Parents deny girls anti-cancer jab
Growing numbers of parents are preventing their daughters being vaccinated against the cancer-causing human papillomavirus (HPV).
More than a quarter of girls did not arrive for their booster dose in 2016, up from 21.4% in 2014 when the government started offering the vaccine in schools.
Now the Cancer Association of SA (Cansa) and other medical experts are mounting a fightback against the anti-vaccine lobby.
Professor Michael Herbst, Cansa's head of health, said parents should be wary of activists who were alarmist about unproven adverse effects.
"It is parents' choice to vaccinate or not to vaccinate their children, but my advice to parents is not to miss such a golden opportunity to vaccinate their kids against HPV, which we all know causes cervical cancer. It is a lot cheaper and safer to vaccinate than to treat cancer," he said.
Dr Ntombenhle Ngcobo, formerly the head of the health department's expanded programme on immunisation, called for clear policies to deal with uncertainty, mistrust and other factors that made parents hesitant.
Ngcobo and colleagues from the South African Vaccination & Immunisation Centre, the Medical Research Council and the University of Cape Town revealed the decline in HPV vaccine uptake in the South African Medical Journal.
The vaccine is offered to schoolgirls from the age of nine. It is thought to be most effective when administered before women are sexually active.
Ngcobo said research was needed on factors keeping the uptake of the vaccine as low as 40% in some health districts.
Factors that are already understood include safety concerns, lack of knowledge about cervical cancer and peer pressure.
Some parents are worried that the vaccination may encourage their daughters to engage in promiscuous behaviour, said Ngcobo.
Sandi Brown, of Paarl in the Western Cape, is convinced her 18-year-old's health problems were caused by the HPV vaccination.
Brown vaccinated her three daughters against tuberculosis, polio, hepatitis B and pneumococcal conditions such as meningitis, but her views changed when her eldest child had the HPV vaccine three years ago.
"Three weeks after vaccination she started feeling sick and developed intense headaches, had a sore neck and arm. She developed such a bad tremor in her right arm that at some point she couldn't write," said Brown. A paediatrician linked the symptoms to the vaccine, she said.
Durban nutritionist Hayley Wylie vows never to vaccinate her 11- and 14-year-old daughters, given their family history of autoimmune diseases such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis.
"It concerns me that HPV has triggered cases of Guillain-Barré syndrome and other autoimmune and arthritic conditions. In my practice I work with gene testing and I think a one-size-fits-all approach just does not work when it comes to individual patients' health," she said.
Health department spokesman Popo Maja said more than 1.5-million girls had received both doses of the HPV vaccine. The delay in administering the second dose was caused by the high number of grade 4 girls who were younger than nine when the first dose was administered.
"These girls will only receive dose two the following year when they are in grade 5, and so will be added to their original cohort later the following year. Plans are under way to move the vaccination campaign to grade 5, to mitigate the problem," he said.