Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi. Picture: FINANCIAL MAIL
Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi. Picture: FINANCIAL MAIL

THE government’s recent introduction of two new childhood vaccines has slashed the number of cases of life-threatening pneumonia and rotavirus, yet these successes have been barely acknowledged, says Minister of Health Aaron Motsoaledi.

Delivering his budget speech to Parliament on Tuesday, Mr Motsoaledi said there had been a 70% decline in potentially deadly pneumonia in children under the age of five, and a 66% decline in children under the age of two admitted to hospital with rotavirus-caused diarrhoea.

The minister lamented the media and politicians’ lack of interest in his department’s programmes for preventing diseases, complaining that curing disease was regarded as a nobler scientific feat than preventing illness. The public discourse placed too much attention on events in hospitals and clinics, he said. "Any one negative event that takes place there is almost immediately regarded as the collapse of the health system," he said.

The government had budgeted R450m a year for pneumococcal vaccines and R200m a year for a vaccine offering protection against rotavirus. These shots, along with the provision of HIV/AIDS treatment, had contributed to a significant improvement in SA’s childhood mortality rate, he said.

SA was the first African country to add a new shot for pneumococcal disease to its national vaccination programme for babies in 2009, as well as a new rotavirus vaccine.

Research published in the New England Journal of Medicine last year found the rate of invasive pneumococcal disease caused by strains of bacteria covered by the shots fell 90% in children under the age of two, and 57% in adults aged between 25 and 44.

Invasive pneumococcal disease refers to severe diseases caused by pneumococcal bacteria, such as meningitis, pneumonia and sepsis. Overall, the rate of invasive pneumococcal disease in the population fell 40%.

The Department of Health initially provided Pfizer’s PCV7 vaccine, branded Prevnar, which gave protection against seven strains of pneumococcal bacteria. It later switched to PCV13, which protects against 13 strains.

Pneumonia is the leading cause of death in children under the age of five worldwide and is responsible for more than 1.1-million deaths a year, according to the World Health Organisation.

It kills more children than HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria combined. While most healthy children can fight off pneumonia-causing pathogens, children who are malnourished or infected with HIV are highly vulnerable.

Expanding on the importance of preventative measures, the minister urged MPs in the half-empty National Assembly chamber to get screened for tuberculosis (TB). He said government’s national TB screening programme, launched by Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa on March 24, had already identified 3,798 people with TB, of whom 74 had the multi-drug resistant form of the disease. "All those (people) did not know about their TB status before their screening," he said.

The minister was notably silent on a publication date for the long-awaited white paper on national health insurance.

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