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BCG vaccination

'Have you been done? The meaning of BCG', a leaflet from the 1930s.

'Have you been done? The meaning of BCG', a leaflet from the 1930s.

Credits:Wellcome Library, London.

The BCG vaccine is given to provide protection against the bacteria that cause tuberculosis. The initials stand for Bacille Calmette-Guérin, after the French bacteriologist Albert Calmette and the veterinarian Camille Guérin, who developed the vaccine first used on humans in 1921. Not unlike Jenner’s smallpox vaccine, BCG uses a related disease found in cattle. This separate bovine tuberculosis had been identified in 1854, but while cowpox was a relatively harmless disease, bovine tuberculosis was a deadly threat once inside the human body.

Calmette and Guérin’s achievement was to cultivate, through extensive laboratory-based experimentation, live but considerably weakened bacteria that could prompt an immune response without causing a dangerous infection. They achieved this is 1919 after toiling for several years at the Pasteur Institutes in Lille and, later, Paris.

Public acceptance of the vaccine was initially slow and it was not until after the Second World War that large-scale national vaccination campaigns really got under way. Today, BCG remains the standard protection against tuberculosis across much of the world, although a few countries - most notably the United States - do not use it. Instead they rely on detecting and treating individuals with latent tuberculosis. Such individuals show no symptoms and are not infectious, but may go on to develop the disease at a later date if left untreated.




A substance given to humans or animals to improve immunity from disease. A vaccine can sometimes contain a small amount of bacteria that is designed to stimulate the body's reaction to that particular disease. The first vaccine was developed in 1796 by Edward Jenner to prevent smallpox.


Micro-organisms which can cause disease but have an important role in global ecology.


An infectious disease that is caused by a bacterium first identified by Robert Koch in 1882. The disease usually affects the lungs first, and is accompanied by a chronic cough.


Viral infection of cows' udders, transmitted to humans by direct contact, causing very mild symptoms similar to smallpox.