Background: In developing countries, low birth weight (LBW) children are often not vaccinated with Calmette-Guérin bacillus (BCG) at birth. Recent studies have suggested that BCG may have a nonspecific beneficial effect on infant mortality. We evaluated the consequences of not vaccinating LBW children at birth in Guinea-Bissau.
Methods: Between 1989 and 1999, 7138 children born at the central hospital had a birth weight registered. We assessed BCG coverage until 3 years of age. Data on tuberculin skin test (TST) for 297 children and BCG scar for 1319 children in the study population were reanalyzed for differences between normal birth weight (NBW) children and LBW children. We assessed the effect of early BCG vaccination on mortality to 12 months of age.
Results: Among LBW children there were 1.5- to 3-fold more unvaccinated individuals than among NBW children up to 4 months of age. There was no overall difference between LBW and NBW children in TST or BCG scarring; LBW children vaccinated early may have had slightly reduced reactions to tuberculin. Among 845 LBW children, 182 had received BCG within the first week of life. Controlling for background factors and censoring at first diphtheria-tetanuspertussis vaccination, measles vaccination or at 6 months of age (whichever came first), the mortality rate ratio for BCG-vaccinated versus -unvaccinated LBW children was 0.17 (95% confidence interval, 0.06–0.49), with an even stronger effect for LBW children vaccinated in the first week of life (mortality rate ratio, 0.07; 95% confidence interval, 0.01–0.62).
Conclusions: The policy of not vaccinating with BCG at birth had a negative impact on vaccination coverage for LBW children. Early BCG vaccination had no large negative impact on TST and BCG scarring. Mortality was lower for BCG-vaccinated than for unvaccinated LBW children controlling for available background factors. BCG vaccination of LBW children may have a beneficial effect on survival that cannot be explained by protection against tuberculosis. Future studies should examine possible adverse effects from equalizing BCG policy for LBW and NBW children.