Wed | May 27, 2020

Dave Rodney | Countries with mandatory TB vaccination have fewer COVID-19 deaths

Published:Wednesday | April 8, 2020 | 12:10 AMDave Rodney/Guest Columnist
Jamaica’s immunisation programme has been lauded as being among the best in the world.
Jamaica’s immunisation programme has been lauded as being among the best in the world.

Her arrival was bad news. Although I was only four or five years old, I remember her face very clearly. She was a dark, short lady with medium thick lips, dressed in a brown uniform and a neatly pleated cap planted atop her jet black hair.

I never knew her name. She was the public health nurse and she had come to our infant school in Savanna-la-Mar, Westmoreland, to spend two or three days to vaccinate all the students.

The vaccination was called BCG (Bacille Calmette-Guerin), to protect against tuberculosis, and virtually all students across Jamaica in the ‘60s and ‘70s were required to go through the ritual.

The nurse came with her syringe and a small kidney-shaped metallic basin. She pierced the arm of the bawling infants, some frantically trying to hide under a desk.

The process was made even more punishing because she used a terrifyingly long needle that was heated on lamp before it was buried deep inside the forearm. She would wipe the area before the stick with cotton and alcohol.

In those days, one needle was used many times, and the nurse kept a collection of index cards on her makeshift table nearby the principal’s desk that were immunisation records for each student.

If you grew up in Jamaica from the ‘50s to the ‘80s, take a look at your left arm right now and you will see the evidence your of BCG scar.

It is now April 2020, and as the coronavirus rages on globally, an exciting new research taking place in New York, Boston, Toronto, Australia and elsewhere is pointing to an emerging trend. It appears that healthcare workers who were vaccinated with BCG, usually from developing countries like Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad and parts of Africa, have much better outcomes for recovery when exposed to the virus.

Nobody is saying at this point that this is a cure. But for what its worth, there are Jamaican healthcare workers that I know personally with BCG who have been exposed to the virus, and only one of six required hospitalisation. They shrugged off the relatively mild symptoms in two to three days and appeared to quickly recover. I wrote about one such case in The Gleaner two weeks ago. Was it the ginger, garlic and moringa concoction, or was it the BCG that aided the speedy recovery?

Both the New York Times and Bloomberg News have reported in the past few days that countries like Jamaica and Japan with mandatory policies to vaccinate against tuberculosis register fewer COVID-19 deaths than countries like Italy and the United States that don’t have those policies.

The preliminary study led by Gonzalo Otazu at the New York Institute of Technology finds a correlation between countries that require citizens to get the BCG and those showing fewer numbers of confirmed cases and deaths from COVID-19. The study continues to see whether the BCG vaccine can indeed provide some level of protection against the virus.

SENSITISES THE IMMUNE SYSTEM

“Scientists are still working to better understand why the BCG vaccine may be effective against not just tuberculosis but other disease microbes. A decade-long work by a Dutch scientist, Mihai Netea at Radbound University Medical Center in the Netherlands, shows that BCG vaccine sensitises the immune system in such a way that whenever any pathogen that relies on the same attack strategy as the TB bacteria attacks, it is ready to respond in a better way than the immune system of those who haven’t received the vaccine,” Bloomberg News reported. Whatever the outcome of the research may be, we should thank our public health nurses for that needle ‘jook’ that we so bitterly despised. It may be an unintended prized possession in today’s ever-changing mysteries of life.

Jamaica’s immunisation programme has been lauded as being among the best in the world by international health organisations, and in recent decades the island has been able to successfully eliminate poliomyelitis, measles and rubella.

The BCG vaccination is still done in Jamaica, but usually at birth. In fact, it is a requirement for admission to all schools, whether publicly or privately operated, as Principal Nadine Molloy reminded recently. And under Jamaican law, parents and guardians can be held liable if they wilfully prevent their children from being vaccinated. Gonzalo Otazu pointed out that no country in the world has managed to control the new coronavirus just because the population was protected by BCG. “Social distancing, testing and isolating cases will need to be implemented to manage the spread of the disease,” he reiterated.

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