Tuberculosis or Bacille Calmette-Guérin (BCG) vaccine
What is it for?
The Bacillus Calmette-Guérin (BCG) vaccine protects you from the bacteria that cause tuberculosis (TB) — Mycobacterium tuberculosis. The BCG vaccine can also protect against leprosy.
TB is an infectious disease that affects the lungs. It’s spread in droplets that are coughed out into the air by people who have a TB infection in their lungs. If the infection is not treated with antibiotics, each person with active TB disease pass on the infection to other people. There are about 1200 cases of TB every year in Australia.
In people who are generally healthy, TB infection often remains inactive (dormant) and causes no symptoms. This is because a healthy immune system can keep the infection from progressing. Up to 10% of people who are infected with TB will become sick at some time during their life. If for some reason your immune system is weakened through illness (e.g. HIV infection), the disease can become active and progress more quickly. TB can be fatal if it is not treated.
The symptoms of active TB are:
- coughing (sometimes with sputum or blood)
- chest pains
- weight loss
- fever and night sweats.
The BCG vaccine reduces the chances of developing TB, and it is very effective in preventing serious complications of TB infections in young children.
For more information, read the Queensland Health fact sheet on BCG vaccination.
Who should be vaccinated?
TB infection is not very common in Australia, so vaccination is not recommended for everyone.
Compared with other Australians, TB is more common in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people living in the Northern Territory (NT), and parts of Queensland (QLD). Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander newborn babies living in these areas are therefore at higher risk of TB infection.
The BCG vaccine is only recommended for the following groups of people who are considered to be at increased risk of TB infection:
- all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander newborn babies living in parts of QLD and the NT
- newborn babies whose parents have TB or leprosy, or who have been treated for leprosy in the past
- children younger than 5 years old who will spend time in countries where TB is common
- children younger than 16 years old who live with, or are exposed to, someone with TB, or from a country where TB is present
- healthcare workers who may come into contact with people with TB and who are at high risk of infection.
Before you are vaccinated, you may need to have a skin test called a Mantoux test to check whether you have already been exposed to the disease. If your test is negative, and you are at risk of infection, your doctor may recommend that you are vaccinated.
The vaccination is not suitable for people who:
- have had TB in the past, or who reacted to the Mantoux test
- have a weakened immune system (e.g. are HIV positive or who are taking medicines to suppress their immune system)
- people with cancer of the bone marrow or lymph system
- people who are very ill or malnourished.
Vaccination may need to be delayed in:
- newborns undergoing medical care in hospital
- babies born to mothers who are HIV positive (the vaccination can be given if the baby is not HIV positive)
- who have an illness with fever (i.e. a temperature 38.5°C or higher)
- people being treated for TB
- people who have recently had another live vaccine (e.g. MMR, MMRV, chickenpox, shingles, yellow fever)
- people with a skin disorder such as eczema, dermatitis or psoriasis.
The BCG vaccine is not recommended for pregnant women.
However, if you are at high risk of TB infection, the benefit of being vaccinated may outweigh the risk of any side effects of the vaccine, and your doctor may advise you to have the vaccination.
Read more about what vaccines you can have if you are pregnant.
Women who are breastfeeding
The BCG vaccine can be given to women who are breastfeeding if they are at risk of TB infection.
In general, there is no known risk to your baby if you are vaccinated with any vaccine — except the yellow fever vaccine — while you are breastfeeding.
Common side effects that may affect 1 to 10 in every 100 people include:
- an ulcer at the injection site that develops 2 to 6 weeks after the vaccination
- swollen glands.
Read more about vaccine side effects and safety.
Who can I ask about side effects?
If you’re concerned that you or your child may have had side effects related to a vaccine, seek medical advice. To report and discuss possible side effects, call the Adverse Medicines Events (AME) Line on 1300 134 237 from anywhere in Australia (Monday–Friday, 9am–5pm AEST).
- Australian Government Department of Health and Ageing. Office of Health Protection. 4.20 Tuberculosis. In: The Australian Immunisation Handbook, 10th edn. www.immunise.health.gov.au/internet/immunise/publishing.nsf/Content/handbook10-4-7
- Rossi S, ed. eAMH [online]. Adelaide: Australian Medicines Handbook, January 2013.
- Simpson G. BCG vaccine in Australia. Australian Prescriber 2003;26:144–6. www.australianprescriber.com/magazine/26/6/144/6