Germs are all around us, at play, at work and in our homes. Did you know that some germs are actually ‘friendly’ and that we need them to keep healthy?

Believe it or not but there are about 400 types of bacteria that live in the human digestive system. Some of these bacteria break down food that is difficult to digest; some help the body break down drugs and cancer-causing agents; others combat harmful bacteria that also live in the digestive tract and bowels.

But most germs, such as viruses and many types of bacteria, are pathogenic and we need to protect ourselves from the infectious diseases they cause.

Let us first discuss some common childhood diseases caused by different types of viruses and bacteria. Most of these diseases can have serious consequences and some may even prove fatal. The most effective way to guard against these diseases is to get your baby and child vaccinated.

What are bacteria?

Bacteria are single-celled living organisms that contain genetic material that help them replicate. They are free-living and do not necessarily need to live in a host cell to survive. They use a host as a source of food. But after bacteria invade the body, they feed off living tissue as well as replicate in it, causing infectious diseases and their spread.

What is a virus?

A virus is a microscopic bit of genetic material covered in a protein coat. It cannot live on its own and needs a host cell to survive and reproduce. That is why many scientists do not consider a virus a living organism.

Viruses cause various types of diseases, from serious infectious diseases such as AIDS, smallpox, meningitis and hepatitis to mild illnesses such as influenza.

What is a vaccine?

Since a virus not a living organism, they cannot be treated by antibiotics. The most effective way to arm oneself against a virus is to be vaccinated against it.

A vaccine contains bits of a virus – either a dead or weakened form of the virus. When a vaccine is injected into the human body, the immune system immediately produces antibodies to fight the pathogen. These antibodies continue to circulate in the bloodstream for years and thus alert the body if that specific virus attacks the body again. The immune system is thus well armed to rally against the invading germ and protect the individual from contracting the disease.

Vaccines are germ-specific. That is, a particular vaccine protects against a specific bacteria or virus and no other. This is why there are many types of vaccines. Vaccines are usually injected though some are administered in the form of oral drops.

Isn’t my baby too young to be vaccinated?

No. Even newborns are vaccinated. Newborns receive some natural immunity from the mother through breast milk. But this does not last long and leaves the child vulnerable to infectious diseases.

Should I worry if my child misses an appointment?

If your baby or child misses an appointment, schedule another one. Let your doctor know an appointment was missed. He / she will know how to make up for the missed dose.

Infectious Diseases & Vaccines
  1. Diphtheria
  2. Haemophilus Influenzae Type B (Hib)
  3. Hepatitis A
  4. Hepatitis B
  5. Influenza
  6. Measles
  7. Mumps
  8. Pertussis
  9. Pneumococcal Disease (PD)
  10. Polio (poliomyelitis)
  11. Rubella
  12. Rotavirus
  13. Tetanus
  14. Varicella (Chicken pox)
1. Diphtheria

This is a bacterial infectious disease of the upper respiratory tract.

Signs & Symptoms
  1. Usually starts with mild fever and a sore throat.
  2. Diphtheria can cause heart damage, nerve damage, muscle weakness and paralysis.

How does it spread?
Breathing, sneezing, coughing, talking.

Haemophilus Influenzae Type B (Hib)

Hib is caused by a bacterium that infects the meninges – the covering of the brain and spinal cord – and causes meningitis. It could also infect the lungs and cause pneumonia. Sometimes, the bacterium infects the throat, causing it to swell.

Signs & Symptoms
  1. Brain infection can cause hearing loss, mental retardation or death.
  2. Lung infection can make it difficult to breathe.
  3. Swelling of the throat can make cause serious breathing problems.
How does it spread?

PD can spread through air that is exhaled, sneezing, coughing and talking. The disease can also spread through ‘carriers’.

Hepatitis A

Hepatitis A is a virus that causes a disease that goes by thee same name. It is a liver disease.

Signs & Symptoms
  1. Fever
  2. Nausea and stomach pain
  3. Loss of appetite and tiredness
  4. Yellowing of the skin and whites of these eyes
  5. In rare cases, Hepatitis A can be fatal
How does it spread?
  1. Person-to-person contact
  2. Eating or drinking something contaminated by the virus
  3. Through carriers
Hepatitis B

This is a potentially life-threatening infectious disease caused by a virus. Hepatitis B is associated with serious liver complications and increases the risk of cancer.

Signs & Symptoms
  • Stomach pain
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Yellowing of the skin and whites of these eyes
How does it spread?
  • Hepatitis B can spread through contact with blood and other body fluids
  • A pregnant mother can transmit the Hepatitis B virus to her unborn child

Influenza or ‘the flu’ is also a viral infectious disease.

Signs & Symptoms
  1. Fever (sometimes high enough to cause seizures), sore throat, headache, cough, muscle ache, loss of appetite, extreme tiredness
  2. Ear infections, croup, stomach ache, vomiting and diarrhoea
  3. Young children are more likely to be hospitalised due to the flu than older children
How does it spread?

Breathing, sneezing, coughing and talking.


Measles is a highly contagious respiratory infection caused by a virus. It causes a skin rash throughout the body and flu-like symptoms.

Signs & Symptoms
  1. Starts with a hacking cough, runny nose, high fever, red eyes
  2. Appearance of small red spots with blue-white centres inside the mouth
  3. Measles can cause secondary illnesses such as:
    1. Brain swelling (encephalitis).
    2. Lung infection (pneumonia).
    3. A rare brain disease that occurs years after the infection.
How does it spread?

Breathing, sneezing, coughing, talking. Infected children can spread measles before the rash appears and even after it disappears.


Mumps is caused by a virus that spreads through saliva and infects the salivary glands. These glands, located between the ear and jaw, swell and become painful, giving rise to the disease’s typical swollen-cheek look.

Signs & Symptoms
  1. Hearing loss
  2. Infection of the covering of the brain and spinal cord (meningitis).
  3. Inflammation of the heart, kidneys and / or joints.
How does it spread?

Breathing, sneezing, coughing, talking. Infected children can spread measles before the rash appears and even after it disappears.


Commonly called whooping cough, pertussis is a bacterial disease of the respiratory system. It leads to severe bouts of coughing that leave a whooping sound when the child breathes.

Signs & Symptoms
  1. Lung infection
  2. Sudden uncontrollable movements (Seizures)
  3. Death
How does it spread?

Breathing, sneezing, coughing, talking.

Pneumococcal Disease (PD)

This is an infection caused by a bacterium called streptococcus pneumoniae, which causes different types of illnesses depending on which organ it invades.

  1. Lungs: pneumonia
  2. Bloodstream: bacteremia
  3. Tissues and fluids surrounding the brain and spinal cord: meningitis
  4. Ear and Sinuses: middle ear and sinus infections
Signs & Symptoms
  1. Brain infection can cause hearing loss or brain damage
  2. Blood infection can cause serious skin, bone and joint infections
  3. Lung infection can make it difficult to breathe
How does it spread?

PD can spread through air that is exhaled, sneezing, coughing and talking. Some people carry the bacteria even though they do not have the disease. These people are called ‘carriers’ and can pass the bacterium to others and infect them.

10. Polio (poliomyelitis)

Polio is a viral disease that can cripple or cause death.

Signs & Symptoms
  1. Infection of the covering of the brain and spinal cord – meninges – causing meningitis.
  2. Paralysis on one side of the body, usually the legs.
  3. Paralysis of the muscles in the chest and respiratory tract.
  4. Muscle weakness than can recur later in life.
How does it spread?

The polio virus is found in the stool of infected children and is easily spread to the hands and therefore objects in the surroundings.

11. Rotavirus

This highly infectious, highly contagious disease affects the bowels. It causes severe diarrhoea in among infants and children and can even prove fatal. The virus gets its name from its wheel-like appearance and derives from the Latin rota, meaning ‘wheel’.

Signs & Symptoms
  1. Severe diarrhoea, vomiting, fever, stomach pain and dehydration.
  2. In younger children, rotavius can cause death due to dehydration.
How does it spread?

Rotavirus is found in the stool of infected children and is easily spread to the hands and therefore objects in the surroundings.

12. Rubella

Also known as German measles, this is a viral disease. It is more easily curable in children than in adults. But it could cause serous joint problems in children.

Signs & Symptoms
  • Incubation period of 14–21 days.
  • Appearance of a rash on the face which spreads to the trunk and limbs.
  • Rash usually lasts three days.
  • Mild fever
  • Swollen glands joint pains.
  • Conjunctivitis
How does it spread?

Breathing, sneezing, coughing, talking.

13. Tetanus

Tetanus is a bacterial infection that can harm the muscles of the entire body. It is often called ‘lockjaw’. If not treated in time, tetanus can prove fatal.

Signs & Symptoms

It affects the muscles and nerves and is usually contracted from a skin wound that gets contaminated by a bacterium called clostridium tetani found in the soil.

The bacteria produce a neurotoxin – a protein that acts as a poison to the nervous system – that causes muscle spasms. If the toxin spreads to various parts of the body through the blood and lymph, it could damage the nerves across the body and cause generalised muscle spasms.

How does it spread?
  • A newborn can contract tetanus from an infection in the umbilical cord.
  • Children with cuts and wounds can attract the bacteria, which lives in soil.
14. Varicella (Chickenpox)

A common childhood viral disease that produces an itchy blistering rash. While most cases are not serious, chickenpox can sometimes be fatal.

Signs & Symptoms
  1. Serious skin scars
  2. If blisters get infected, they can cause serious skin infections.
  3. Infected blisters can also cause infection of the blood and other parts of the body.
  4. In rare cases, chickenpox can infect the lungs pneumonia) and cause swelling of the brain (meningitis).
How does it spread?

Breathing, talking, coughing, sneezing, touching chickenpox blisters.

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