Childhood tuberculosis (TB) is harder to diagnose and treat than adult TB, and it kills. Although the only TB vaccine in existence is for children and is routinely offered to kids around the world, new research shows that tens of thousands of lives could be saved if all children received it at birth.
'Chunk' of deaths preventable
“There are still 1 million cases of childhood TB every year and about 200 000 deaths,” Dr Jeffrey Starke, international childhood TB expert from Texas Children’s Hospital, told delegates at the Union World Conference on Lung Health that took place in Mexico last week.
But research presented at the conference showed that between 5 000 and 30 000 childhood TB deaths could be averted if this vaccination (called the BCG) is given at birth, routinely.
This is despite the vaccine only having an estimated efficacy of 19% for vaccinated children versus unvaccinated children, according to 2014 research published in the Biomedical Journal.
Rebecca Harris of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine in the United Kingdom reported the results which predicted the impact on childhood TB deaths of giving the vaccine at birth, six weeks, one month or at one year and concluded that a significant chunk of the global childhood TB deaths experienced currently could be quite easily prevented.
Internationally the BCG vaccination is already recommended to be delivered at birth by the World Health Organisation and others, but many delays occur in countries, especially those with weaker health systems. Some countries also only give the vaccine at six weeks as a matter of policy.
Unregistered vaccines from India
But, according to Andy Gray from the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s pharmacology department the “bigger issue” with the BCG vaccine is the global shortage of the vaccine which has been going on for over two years and is related “quality problems at a number of facilities, in Denmark and Canada”.
Currently, South Africa is relying “on imports of unregistered vaccines from India as the usual Danish supplier is unable to supply any stock”, he said.
Despite this, the country has about 90% coverage of the BCG vaccination at birth, according to Dr Fareed Abdullah from the South African Medical Research Council.
But considering that South Africa has one of the highest TB burdens in the world, reaching that missed 10% could be critical.
Starke urged all countries that still give BCG vaccines at six weeks instead of at birth to change their immunisation policies.
“For too long TB has been a concealed major contributor to child mortality… and we need to use all the tools available to us to change this.” – Health-e News.
Image credit: iStock