Giving newborns BCG tuberculosis vaccine may protect against many common infections

LONDON — Children getting vaccinations in the first few years of life is not a new practice, but a new study finds giving one particular vaccine right after birth may defend against life-threatening complications. Researchers with the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) say a common tuberculosis vaccine can also prevent newborns from developing a variety of different infections.

According to the study, the Bacillus Calmette-Guérin (BCG) vaccine can protect babies from common ailments such as upper respiratory tract infections, chest infections, and diarrhea. The study is the first to thoroughly examine the full range of health benefits this shot can have in infants.

Researchers examined 560 newborns in Uganda during the study. Some of the babies received a BCG vaccine on the day of their birth while the other group received the shot six weeks later. After six weeks, the results reveal infection rates from any disease were 25 percent lower in babies getting the BCG vaccine at birth in comparison to infants still waiting for their vaccination.

Study authors add that certain groups which are particularly vulnerable to infection saw their protection rise the most. These groups include low birth weight babies and males. The BCG vaccine also helped to defend children against mild, moderate, and severe types of infections. Researchers say this discovery may be extremely important in preventing neonatal deaths in areas with high rates of infectious diseases.

“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 BCG is given at birth could make a big difference in low income countries, potentially saving many lives,” lead study author Sarah Prentice says in a media release.

What can BCG protect babies against?

The study randomly vaccinated the Ugandan infants at birth or six weeks after delivery. Without telling physicians which children received a vaccine at birth, doctors followed the group’s health for 10 weeks, looking for signs of illness or disease.

Researchers also took blood samples from both groups to examine each child’s innate immune system. This is the body’s first line of defense against infections. During the first six weeks, babies with the BCG vaccine saw added protection against common cold viruses, chest conditions, and skin infections.

While this group had a 25-percent lower infection rate in the first six weeks, the other infants quickly “caught up” after receiving their injection. Study authors say the infection rate between the two groups was the same once every child received BCG.

“It’s very exciting to think that BCG vaccination might help keep newborns safe against other dangerous infections, in addition to providing protection against TB. 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 disease, could have a major impact on infections and deaths in the newborn period,” adds study co-author Hazel Dockrell, Professor of Immunology at LSHTM.

Why is the BCG vaccine such a cure-all?

Researchers say their study could not determine exactly why BCG offers wide-ranging protection. However, their research points to changes taking place in the innate immune system. The team suggests that BCG may help to boost the natural immune response to all types of infections, not just tuberculosis.

Study authors add this could mean BCG can also protect people against the early stages of COVID-19 or even Ebola. Previous research has also examined this link between the tuberculosis vaccine and more milder cases of coronavirus.

“Since the findings show that BCG seems to offer wider protection against a range of infections, our study also raises hopes 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,” Dr. Prentice says.

While the BCG vaccine is a common vaccine in use around the world, not every country still uses it. Researchers believe their study warrants more investigation into bringing the drug back in nations like the United Kingdom — this time as a way to protect babies from various infections.

Prentice and the team caution that the results do have some limitations, given the small study group coming from only one country. However, they add that previous reports conducted in West Africa have uncovered the same infection rates this current study revealed.

The study appears in The Lancet Infectious Diseases.

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