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Put children’s health first

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Sister Valerie Kruger administering immunisations at a primary school.
Sister Valerie Kruger administering immunisations at a primary school.

Children across the province started the new school year last week, so the provincial health department is imploring parents to ensure their children stay healthy so that they can learn and thrive.

In a statement, the department reminded parents and caregivers that it provides free childhood immunisations, school health services and mental health support along the schooling and health journey.

Immunisation

An essential part of keeping your child healthy is staying up-to-date with their childhood immunisations.

Immunisation saves millions of lives annually and is one of the world’s most successful health interventions. It protects children against illness such as measles, tetanus, TB, diphtheria (which affects the lungs), leprosy, whooping cough, Hepatitis B, and polio – all very dangerous diseases that can lead to permanent disability and even death.

“Though our measles numbers in the Western Cape are quite small, parents should be vigilant and make sure that their children’s measles immunisations are up-to-date according to the immunisation schedule in the Road to Health booklet,” advised Dr Nomafrench Mbombo, provincial health and wellness minister.

“We urge all parents and caregivers to get their children immunised for free at their nearest clinic or community healthcare centre. Between Monday 6 and Friday 17 February, the department will be providing one measles booster immunisation for every child under the age of five. We want to emphasise the importance for parents to take up this opportunity to provide extra protection to their children.”

Children aged 12 years or older can also be vaccinated against Covid-19. It’s safe and available for free at your nearest clinic or vaccination site in your community.

HPV immunisation

From Monday 20 February to Friday 31 March, the department’s school health teams will be visiting public and special schools to administer the first dose of the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine and the tetanus and diphtheria (Td - Diftavax) booster for free.

The HPV vaccine is part of the Integrated School Health Programme. Two HPV injections, five to six months apart are administered to Grade 5 girls older than nine years, with the necessary consent.

It is estimated that approximately 80% of women will be infected with the HPV in their life. The virus is responsible for 99% of all cervical cancer cases. The HPV vaccination is most effective if administered before exposure to the virus – before puberty and becoming sexually active – when the immune system is able to provide a stronger antibody response. The vaccine is a safe and preventative precaution to cervical cancer.

School health services

School health teams work with teachers, learners and parents to make schools a healthy environment. “With parental or caregiver consent, we assess the child’s health by conducting eyesight and hearing screening, oral health screening and education, health promotion, immunisation and vaccinations, monitor growth and fine motor skills, and assess if the child is receiving good nutrition, treat skin conditions, treat lice and scabies, conduct mental health assessments, and a full physical examination for children in Grade R to 12,” explained sister Valerie Kruger, chairperson of Health Promoting Schools in the Western Cape.

“Parents can rest assured that their consent is required for the school health nurses to conduct any screening on their child. Through the school, we will issue a consent form to administer any immunisations or treatment.”

Mental health support

Globally, it is estimated that one in seven (14%) 10- to 19-year-olds experience mental health challenges. Dr Estelle Lawrence said poor mental health can impact many areas of an adolescent’s life and urges teenagers and parents to get support if necessary.

“Parents need to work at building strong relationships with their teenager. Please talk about mental health, ask what’s wrong and offer support if your child feels sad, anxious, depressed, or appears to be struggling. Studies have shown that if adolescents feel connected to their family, school and community, they are less likely to struggle with poor mental health, substance abuse and violence. They need to know someone cares about them,” explained Lawrence.

Adolescents can access mental healthcare at their nearest clinic where a trained health practitioner will provide support or refer them to a mental health practitioner. They can also dial Childline on 116 for telephonic support.

Diarrhoeal disease

Annually November to March marks a spike in children treated for diarrhoeal disease, so the department advised adults to be extra watchful over children. Associate Professor Heloise Buys, the head of the Clinical Unit Ambulatory & Emergency at Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital, said children are more dependent on their caregivers and parents to ensure they take in enough fluids. “They often don’t verbalise that they are thirsty. Also, because they are so much smaller than adults, losing a small amount of fluid in their watery stools is a big deal. They become dehydrated or go into shock more easily,” said Buys.

“Take the sign of the first loose stool seriously and immediately start with a replacement oral rehydration solution.”

You can make the solution at home by boiling a litre of water and letting it cool down; adding eight teaspoons of sugar and half a teaspoon of salt; and giving the child small sips of the solution. Continue feeding the child.

Sister Gale Goeieman agreed on the importance of quickly acting to avoid dehydration. “If giving the solution does not work and the child is still not taking in fluids or vomiting all fluids they drink, go to the clinic immediately, so that we can help to prevent severe dehydration,” she said.

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