Vaccines save lives and have been instrumental in preventing a myriad of infections that would otherwise cause undue suffering and death in children.
In Kenya, the extended immunisation programme has played a key role in reducing deaths among infants from a myriad of childhood ailments.
Nevertheless, health experts note that access to vaccines alone is not enough.
Children need to be immunised at the right time, based on the agreed schedules for recommended vaccines, to enable them to reap maximum health benefits.
One of the key vaccines given to children is the Bacillus Calmette-Guerin (BCG), which offers protection against tuberculosis (TB).
But a new study published in The Lancet Infectious Diseases Journal indicates that when given at the right time, it could protect newborns against a variety of common conditions such as upper respiratory tract infections, chest complications like pneumonia or bronchitis, diarrhoea and potentially Covid-19.
The vast majority of upper respiratory infections such as the common cold are caused by viruses.
Their symptoms include a runny or stuffy nose, coughing, fever, fatigue, wheezing and headaches that could be detrimental to newborns due to their low immunity.
According to the researchers, the findings of the study provided evidence showing that the BCG jab causes innate changes in the immune system of vaccinated infants, which may suggest that it boosts their immune system to work better against any infection.
This has led the researchers to suggest that the vaccine could provide protection in the early stages of novel outbreaks, such as Covid-19 or Ebola, before specific vaccines targeting them have been developed.
Further studies are already underway to explore whether the BCG vaccine could play a role in the response to Covid-19, with large trials involving healthcare workers and the elderly.
Indeed, Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the World Health Organisation, has co-authored an article expressing interest in the possible use of the BCG vaccine for protection against Covid-19.
“Since the findings show that BCG seems to offer wider protection against a range of infections, our study also raises hopes that it might be useful in protecting the general population against Covid-19 and future pandemics — though we will need to see the results of other, more specific studies to know for sure,” said Dr Sarah Prentice, the lead author of the study from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
According to the researchers, this new Lancet Study is the first of its kind to rigorously investigate the full range of illnesses that the BCG vaccine could protect infants against.
It suggests that vaccinating all babies on the day of birth with the BCG vaccine could reduce newborn ailments and death in areas with high infectious disease rates, potentially saving thousands of lives a year.
“Nearly a million babies die every year of common infections so we urgently need better ways to protect them. Our research suggests that ensuring that the BCG vaccine is given at birth could make a big difference in low-income countries, potentially saving many lives,” said Dr Prentice of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
Based on the recommended health guidelines, the vaccine is supposed to be given to babies in Kenya at birth.
But vaccine stock-outs in remote areas usually causes delays, forcing parents to bring their babies back to the hospital for immunisation at a later date, when the BCG vaccines are available. For improved birth outcomes, the Health ministry recommends that mothers deliver in medical facilities under skilled care.
In such instances, the BCG vaccines can be administered swiftly to the infant.
But for the babies born at home, under traditional birth attendants, access to the vaccine is a challenge. And parents have to be encouraged to take the child to the hospital as soon as possible for the vaccine.
These delays put the child at risk of suffering or succumbing to largely preventable infectious diseases.
“It’s very exciting to think that the BCG vaccination might help keep newborns safe against other dangerous infections, in addition to providing protection against TB,” noted Hazel Dockrell, a co-author of the study and professor of immunology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
“Although BCG is recommended at birth in many countries, it is often delayed due to logistical difficulties.
“Ensuring that the vaccine is given on day one, in areas with high rates of infectious diseases, could have a major impact on infections and deaths in the newborn period.”
The new study was conducted by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, in collaboration with the Medical Research Council and Uganda Virus Research Institute.
It involved 560 newborns that were monitored for a range of illnesses in Uganda.
After six weeks, the results of the study showed that infection rates from any disease were 25 per cent lower in the group that had received the BCG vaccine at birth, compared to the group that had not yet received the vaccination.
Particularly, vulnerable groups such as babies with a low birth weight seemed to be protected the most.
Importantly, the vaccine appeared to protect babies against mild, moderate and severe types of infections.
Besides, the protection offered by the BCG vaccine did not also seem to be against one specific type of infection, but for all types — such as common colds, chest infections and skin infections.
Though conducted in Uganda, the results of the study are similar to previous ones done in West Africa that have shown a reduction in infant deaths following BCG vaccination at birth.