The TB vaccine also appears to protect newborn babies in low-income countries from many other infectious diseases, a study from Uganda has shown.
The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine study indicates that thousands of lives could be saved with prompt Bacillus Calmette-Guérin (BCG) vaccinations.
The suggestion that it protects so widely also hints that it could guard against Covid-19 infection or other emerging pandemic threats as well, while more specific vaccines are developed, the team said.
The study, published in The Lancet Infectious Diseases journal, showed that infection rates among a group of 560 newborn babies in Uganda who got their BCG jab the day they were born were 25 per cent lower in the first six weeks of life – across all diseases – than for those who had not yet got their vaccination.
As well as tuberculosis, the vaccine also seemed to reduce the rates of a number of other common infectious diseases, like colds or skin infections. More importantly, it also guarded against conditions that can be very serious for young babies, including upper respiratory tract and bloodstream infections.
Vulnerable groups including low birthweight babies and boys seemed to benefit the most.
The study was done before Covid, in 2015, but the cross-protective impact of the vaccine “raises hopes” over its potential for use to protect against coronavirus or even other deadly diseases like Ebola, the researchers said.
The World Health Organisation already recommends that all infants in high infection areas get the BCG jab on the day they are born, but logistical problems – for example, if babies are not born in hospital settings – often get in the way of this.
Dr Sarah Prentice, lead author from LSHTM, said: “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.”