Are we ready for a TB vaccine?

Diana Wangari, CNS Correspondent, Kenya
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(First publish in the Star News, Kenya)
Do you remember receiving a TB vaccine? Or are you, like some of my friends, not quite sure about what I am referring to and require that I ask: "Do you have a mark on your upper left forearm?" A mark left after receiving the BCG Vaccine. Perhaps, I should start at the beginning. Recently, I attended a workshop organised by Aeras – a biotech organisation whose mission is to develop new TB vaccines.

While sharing this with a group of friends, I found that they were surprised to learn that despite decades of existence, TB was still proving to be a menace, so much so that it might take a few more decades to get a vaccine. You see, during the workshop we got to learn there were TB vaccine trials being launched with one site being right here in Kenya – Siaya county.

Now, the first question that came up was how come there was need for another vaccine as we receive the BCG vaccine when young? A few of them were wondering if it is simply a waste of time to take your child to be vaccinated against TB. After all, why do we still hear of TB cases even when it is mandatory for all children born in this country to receive the vaccine?

And for the next half an hour I attempted to explain that the BCG vaccine given at birth is actually protective during childhood years only. That in essence means it is not a guarantee that one will never acquire TB even after getting that vaccine. However, it offers protection during those vulnerable years after birth when the body's defence mechanism is not as strong.

This brings us to the need for a TB vaccine that can be administered to adults – the kind of work Aeras is involved in. And the other burning question is- when would the vaccine be ready? Tentatively 2035. Yes, you read that right—the vaccine is at least 20 years far away.

My friends were outraged at this prospect of a lengthy wait. And if it were not for the knowledge acquired during my medical school training, I too would have been taken aback. But the process of developing a vaccine and getting approval for it is not a simple one (if you are a reader of this column you would know). In fact it is very complex to say the least. It undergoes different study phases, in different locations, and at each stage there is close monitoring and evaluation. Because at the end of the day it's not just about getting a vaccine – the vaccine not only has to be safe for use by human beings, it must also be affordable and accessible to all with ease of administration.

The question therefore remains, what are we doing in the meantime? Sure, we can treat TB. But then are we making the right diagnosis and offering timely treatment? Are the services adequate? Is funding for early diagnosis and quality treatment sufficient to match the burden of the disease? More so, are we talking about prevention? And are we taking the right measures? These are some of the questions that need to be answered.

TB might not have the same drastic effects like the recent Ebola epidemic, and the thought that it is treatable often puts most people at ease. But should we become lax in our efforts to control TB just because there is treatment or there might be a vaccine on the way? It is for all of us, dear readers, to decide the next steps to be taken reduce mortality and morbidity due to the menace called TB.

Diana Wangari, Citizen News Service - CNS
9 April 2015