AN URGENT review of whether the BCG tuberculosis jab should be reinstated in schools across Wales has been called for this week.
Mounting support for the return of the vaccination programme comes after three cases of the potentially life-threatening infection were reported in three months within the borders - two of which affected school staff and children.
The calls also have the backing of doctors, some of whom say the decision to stop the BCG vaccination in schools may have been made too soon.
Janet Ryder, the Assembly's shadow education spokesperson, has now written to Edwina Hart, Wales's health minister, urging the review. And it emerged this week that a review also has widespread support from teaching unions.
"We are reaching a stage where we need to find out if we are providing adequate protection for our young people," Ms Ryder said.
The independent Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) advised the Westminster Government to stop vaccinating secondary pupils in July 2005, in favour of an improved, targeted programme to tackle the infection, which attacks the lungs.
Now only higher-risk groups, including infants whose parents or grandparents were born in countries with high TB rates and those who live or work in areas with a high incidence of the disease are vaccinated. There are no such areas in Wales, which has among the lowest proportions of UK cases.
But Wales has seen confirmation of TB in three areas since April, including a childminder and four children from Ely in Cardiff, as well as four children at Gorseinon infants and junior school near Swansea. Earlier this month, a member of staff at Holywell high school in Flintshire was also off sick with the disease.
Dr Bill Harris, a GP in Pontypridd, said he does not know why the schools vaccination programme was stopped in 2005. He believes the scheme was ended prematurely and that it should be reinstated.
"It would take some convincing as to why it shouldn't be reintroduced," he said.
Anna Brychan, director of the National Association of Head Teachers Cymru, said that although its return would represent a burden on schools, bringing back the BCG may be "better than having to face the uncertainty and worry which some schools have already had to deal with after recent outbreaks".
The combination of better living conditions, antibiotics against TB and the BCG vaccine reduced the number of cases in the UK from around 50,000 a year in 1950 to 5,745 in 1987. But in recent years the number of reported cases has stopped falling.
The latest data from the Health Protection Agency has shown a 2 per cent increase in cases between 2005 and 2006, with 8,171 cases reported in England, Wales and Northern Ireland last year, compared with 8,008 the previous year. This is believed to be a result of a number of factors, including increased migration of people from countries with higher levels of TB.
Gruff Jones, from Welsh-language teaching union UCAC, said it had held meetings to discuss its concerns. "It does worry us that it's coming back and its possible effect on youngsters' education," he said. "We would encourage the medical authorities to look at ways of safeguarding against an epidemic."
The National Public Health Service for Wales is concerned about reported incidents of TB but says cases in Wales have stayed relatively static and there is no evidence of any adverse effect of changing the BCG programme.
A spokesman said it wasn't appropriate to question the decision by the JCVI. It also insisted resources were not an issue in Wales.
The JCVI says it still believes that targeting the BCG vaccination programme "to achieve high rates of coverage in particular ethnic groups, and in parts of the country where TB rates are highest, is the most effective vaccination strategy for the UK".
* Teenage girls across Britain will be offered a new vaccine to protect them against cervical cancer, following a decision last week by the JCVI.
It has given the go-ahead for the human papilloma virus vaccine to be given to 12 and 13-year-olds in a national vaccination programme from next year.
Details of the programme are expected to be finalised over the next few months. It is hoped that the jab will lead to a 70 per cent reduction in the number of cervical cancer cases every year.
Special report, pages 16-17
Leader, page 26