That BCG vaccine
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MANY parents don't necessarily investigate what protection is offered by each childhood vaccine; they just follow the schedule and take their children to the clinic when it's time to get shots. But have you ever wondered what's so special about that very first vaccine your child gets, within hours after their birth? What's so special about the BCG vaccine?

The BCG (Bacillus Calmette-Guérin) vaccine is given for protection against severe forms of tuberculosis (TB). Tuberculosis is a disease caused by bacteria that are spread from person to person through the air. TB usually affects the lungs, but it can also affect other parts of the body, such as the brain, the kidneys or the spine. A person with TB can die if they do not get treatment. TB disease still exists in Jamaica, but Jamaica is low burden TB country with an incidence of less than 10 cases per 100,000 population per year.

The BCG vaccine is only given once in a lifetime, and is given as an injection in the left upper arm. The vaccination usually leaves a small scar.

The BCG vaccine is made from a weakened strain of TB bacteria. Because the bacteria in the vaccine is weak, it triggers the immune system to protect against the infection. It provides consistent protection against the most severe forms of TB, such as TB meningitis in children. TB meningitis can initially display vague symptoms such as aches and pains, loss of appetite and tiredness, usually with a persistent headache. These vague symptoms can last for several weeks before more specific symptoms of meningitis, such as severe headache, dislike of bright lights and neck stiffness occur. The slow progression of the disease makes it difficult to diagnose and it is often advanced before treatment begins. At least 20 per cent of TB patients will suffer long-term after-effects. These are often severe and may include severe brain damage, epilepsy, paralysis and hearing loss. Between 15-30 per cent of patients will die, despite receiving treatment and care.

The Ministry of Health has consistently urged parents and guardians to adhere to the vaccination schedule outlining clinic appointments for the vaccination of their children, because of the deleterious effects that vaccine-preventable diseases can have on a child.

The Immunisation Regulations of 1986, which were amended in 2013, as well as the adolescent and adult vaccination policies, stipulate that all children under seven years of age must be adequately immunised prior to school entry.

This applies to children entering daycare, nursery, preschool, basic school and primary school, whether publicly or privately operated.

Immunisations mandated by law for children prior to school entry are at birth, the BCG vaccine; at six weeks, three and six months old, polio; and pentavalent vaccine for protection against diphtheria, pertussis (whooping cough), tetanus (locked jaw), haemophilus influenza type B, and hepatitis B.

Others are at 12 and 18 months old, the MMR for protection against measles, mumps and rubella, and booster doses for polio, diphtheria, pertussis and tetanus are given at 18 months old and four to six years old to complete the schedule.

The human papillomavirus vaccination for protection against cervical cancer is also offered to grade seven girls as part of the national immunisation schedule.

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