We’re Healthier Today Thanks to the Vaccines of Yesterday
Aug 27, 2015

“You can’t know where you’re going until you know where you’ve been.”

We often take the medical marvel of vaccines for granted. When we stop to evaluate public health, we tend to focus on the need for improvement.  On the topic of vaccines and disease prevention, we often emphasize the morbidity and mortality of disease as well as the percentage of unvaccinated individuals.  Rarely do we take time to appreciate the number of illnesses that are avoided and the overwhelming number of people who are vaccinated.

Unfortunately, being successful and effective in public health is not easily apparent because the prevention of disease is difficult to witness. That’s why, as we conclude National Immunization Awareness Month, I want to acknowledge the impact vaccines have had on our health in 2015 and throughout the course of history.   Let’s applaud the fact that vaccines have reduced, and in some cases eliminated, diseases that had commonly killed or severely disabled people just a few generations ago. Stop and imagine all the deaths and illnesses that have been prevented thanks to wide-spread vaccination of just these three diseases:


 Young girl in Bangladesh was infected with smallpox in 1973. Photo Credit: CDC/James Hicks

Young girl in Bangladesh  with smallpox in 1973. Photo Credit: CDC/J. Hicks

Smallpox was a serious, contagious, and sometimes fatal infectious disease caused by a virus called the variola virus. The disease caused small pus-filled blisters that appeared on the face and body of an infected person.

The disease killed an estimated 400,000 Europeans a year during the end of the 18th century, and was responsible for a third of all cases of blindness.Of all those infected, 20–60 percent—and over 80 percent of infected children—died from the disease.

Smallpox was responsible for an estimated 300–500 million deaths during the 20th century.

As recently as 1967, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that 15 million people contracted the disease and that two million died in that year alone.

Fortunately, we no longer have to get smallpox shots because smallpox vaccination eradicated that disease worldwide.

That’s right! No more disease means no more shots!


An Indian boy’s legs are shrunken from paralysis caused by polio WHO/T. Moran

A boy’s legs are shrunken from paralysis caused by polio. Credit: WHO/T. Moran

The polio vaccine is another example of the great impact that vaccines have had in the United States and throughout the world.

Polio is a crippling and potentially deadly infectious disease caused by a virus. It invades the brain and spinal cord and causes paralysis.

Before the polio vaccine was widely available, 13,000 to 20,000 people were paralyzed by polio, and about 1,000 people died from it each year in the United States alone.

Thanks to vaccination, polio was eradicated from the United States in 1979 and worldwide polio cases have since plummeted 99 percent. In 1988, there were as many as 350,000 cases worldwide, but as recently as 2013, polio was limited to a few countries and only 416 cases.


CDC - Rash of rubella on skin of child's back.

Rash of rubella on skin of child’s back. Photo credit: CDC

Rubella is an infection that mostly affects the skin and lymph nodes. It is caused by the rubella virus (and although it is often referred to as German measles, it is not the same virus that causes measles).

Rubella is spread through the air and through direct contact with an infected person. It also can pass through a pregnant woman’s bloodstream to infect her unborn child and can lead to serious complications such as miscarriage, stillbirth, premature delivery and birth defects.

From 1964-1965, a rubella epidemic in the United States caused 12.5 million cases. Twenty thousand children were born with Congenital Rubella Syndrome (CRS) which resulted in 11,000 born deaf, 3,500 blind, and 1,800 mentally retarded. Additionally, there were 2,100 neonatal deaths and more than 11,000 abortions.

Thanks to immunization, rubella is rarely seen in the U.S. anymore, and there are far fewer cases of rubella and birth defects. As we continuing to improve rubella vaccination rates, it’s possible that we will see the day when rubella is no longer around to harm us or our children.

The History of Vaccines Encourages Us To Explore Advances in Prevention

PertussisThese vaccination successes are an important part of our public health vision for the future. We have drastically reduced, and in some cases even eliminated, diseases of the past. It is therefore realistic to expect that we have the ability to eliminate the disease of today and work towards an even healthier future.

But how can we feel optimistic about the future when we’ve seen a resurgence of measles and whooping cough (pertussis) over the past few years? How can we eliminate disease if pockets of unvaccinated individuals threaten the protection we rely on through community immunity?

For example, more than 28,000 cases of whooping cough were reported in the United States in 2014, and 277 people died in the United States from whooping cough from 2000 through 2014.

Tragically, almost all of the deaths were in babies who are too young to be fully vaccinated for pertussis and therefore must rely on the protection of others.

The way forward can be determined from successes of the past.

We must not get too discouraged by the unfortunate amount of disease that exists today. Rather, we must remind ourselves that the public is constantly benefiting from vaccine induced immunity and the overall reduction of preventable diseases.  We have a great foundation and history to follow. Now it’s up to us to remain vigilant on this path.  Let’s commit ourselves to advancing the use of vaccines, and ensuring people understand and appreciate the way in which vaccines can continue to improve individual and public health well into the future.

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