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Early years

26th Apr 2018

Do babies in Ireland still get the BCG vaccine to protect against tuberculosis?

Babies no longer receive it routinely.

Gillian Fitzpatrick

In the months following my daughter’s birth in 2013, she received all of her standard rounds of vaccinations – including the BCG jab.

That immunisation protects against tuberculosis, with Ireland historically having a much higher-than-average prevalence of the infectious disease.

However, by the time my son was born in November 2015, the BCG jab had been put on indefinite hold – due, initially at least, to a Europe-wide shortage of the drug.

“BCG vaccine stock in all areas expired at the end of April 2015 and the HSE continues to experience ongoing delays with the supply of BCG vaccine,” the Health Service Executive‘s website reads.

However, the number of cases of TB has been steadily falling in Ireland 0ver the past couple of decades: cases of TB during 2014 and 2015 were at the lowest level since records began. Indeed, most European countries do not give BCG vaccine to all babies as standard.

The National Immunisation Advisory Committee, which is an independent expert group on immunisation, as well as the Health Information And Quality Authority have both stated that babies born in Ireland do no need to be routinely given the BCG vaccine. And HSE says emphatically “your baby is not at risk”.

In the UK, the jab hasn’t been given routinely since 2005, although it is still available to certain “at risk” groups.

The vaccine is ‘live’ – which is why you get the distinctive scar on your arm at the site of administration.

The shortage of the vaccine first became apparent in 2012; in autumn of 2011 the Canadian manufacturing plant where it was made was flooded and in the aftermath the building had problems with mould. The US’s Food And Drug Administration furthermore identified issues with nesting birds and rusting electrical conduits.

The plant was closed for more than two years for upgrades, and although it began manufacturing BCG vaccine again in October 2014, global stock has yet to catch-up completely. 

Earlier this year, Fianna Fáil junior health spokesperson, Jack Chambers, said that the “absence of the State BCG vaccination is now a growing concern for many families nationwide given the dangers posed to humans from tuberculosis and the fact that the bacterial disease remains a problem in parts of Ireland.

“While the HSE appears to be deflecting the issue, this Government must ensure that all is done to procure a supply and reintroduce the vaccination as a matter of seriousness.”

Personally, as a mum of two – one of whom got their BCG and one of whom didn’t – I’m not overly concerned. When I spoke to my GP about it too, she also said it no longer needed to be included in Ireland’s vaccination programme as are TB rates are – thankfully – so much lower now than they once were.

As for whether it will be reintroduced, the HSE currently states that a “decision on BCG policy based” will be determined by the Department Of Health when BCG vaccine is back in stock.