TAC takes on big pharmaceutical firms for cutting TB vaccine production

04 December 2015 - 20:17 By Katharine Child

One of the world's leading pharmaceutical companies came under fire from the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) at the Global Lung Health conference in Cape Town on Friday afternoon. Sanofi stopped making the BGC (Bacille de Calmette et Guérin) vaccine used to prevent babies and children under five years of age developing tuberculous meningitis‚ a complicated and unusual form of tuberculosis that affects the membranes of the central nervous system. The vaccine also offers partial protection from TB in the lungs‚ the most common form of the disease. The TAC accused Sanofi of putting “thousands of children’s lives at risk by stopping production of the BCG with no warning”. “Where was the plan for ensuring a steady supply of production? Pharmaceutical companies have a responsibility to ensure access to the medicines and vaccines that people rely on to survive‚” said the TAC’s Portia Serote.There has been a global shortage of the BCG vaccine all year and thousands of South African babies have not been vaccinated. Blessi Kumar‚ from the Global Coalition of TB Activists‚ said: “We’re picketing today because we are fed up of Sanofi putting its bank balance ahead of the lives of our people. Medicines are a necessity‚ not a luxury. Sanofi’s research is crucial but is meaningless if it doesn’t help people in need.”Paediatric registrar Alastair McAlpine‚ who works in Cape Town hospitals with sick children‚ said 50,000 South African children a year are "spared severe TB disease thanks to the vaccine". "TB meningitis is a devastating disease. To stop making cause the vaccine because it is no longer profitable is simply despicable. This behaviour conforms to worst stereotypes of big pharmaceutical companies" said McAlpine. About 40 people protested at the Sanofi stand‚ attracting small audience of conference delegates‚ who have come as far afield as Jordan‚ Russia‚ India and United States. South African doctor Dalene von Delft‚ who contracted TB as a medical student‚ had her young baby with her and held a sign saying "BCG for our babies". Sanofi was not immediately available for comment and queries have been sent to its PR company. Professor Shabir Madhi‚ director of the National Institute of Communicable Diseases and deputy chairperson of the National Advisory Group on Immunization‚ said last month that the vaccine shortage was not as bad as had been reported by some media outlets. He said the South African vaccine manufacturing facility‚ Biovac‚ was ordering the BCG vaccine from a new supplier in India and the shortage was abating. Madhi added: "A newborn that had not received the BCG dose soon after birth can be given a dose until 12 months of age. This is in line with the official World Health Organisation recommendations. Delayed administration of BCG by a matter of weeks is unlikely to be detrimental‚ with some evidence suggesting that delaying BCG vaccination might even improve the immune response to the vaccine‚ since the immune system matures with age. "The risk of becoming infected and developing TB disease before getting BCG vaccine is small‚ but real‚ and greatest in infants living in close contact with an adult with untreated TB‚" he said.

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