The History & Future of Vaccines

May 16, 2019 10:59 am

According to a Reuters/Ipsos poll released in March, more than three quarters of Americans think children should be vaccinated for measles even without parents’ consent. More broadly, according to Pew, eight in 10 Americans support school-based vaccine requirements. A Research America survey found 92 percent of Americans feel vaccines are important to the health of our society. 


And, clearly, they are.


As Merck & Co. increases production of its measles-mumps-rubella vaccine to address the country’s largest measles outbreak in 25 years, it is worth contemplating how vaccines improved our general health and welfare in the 20th century. (It’s also worth considering because, as Gene Quinn of IPWatchdog notes in a new post, current drug pricing proposals could erode money available for vaccine research and development.) 


While Edward Jenner developed the first vaccine – for smallpox – in 1796, most of the vaccines we use today were developed in the 20th century.


 A vaccine for pertussis (whooping cough) came onto the market in 1914. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), before the vaccine became widely available in the 1940s, about 200,000 U.S. children got sick with the disease each year, and 9,000 died. Today doctors see about 10,000 to 40,000 cases annually and fewer than 20 deaths.


The diphtheria vaccine was released 12 years later, in 1926. eMedicineHealth reports “widespread use led to a dramatic decrease of diphtheria worldwide.” In the United States, respiratory diphtheria “is currently a rare disease that has largely been eliminated through effective vaccination programs.”


Tetanus came another dozen years after diphtheria, in 1938. The CDC explains that death rates fell dramatically as a result, particularly for women and children. In a paper on tetanus surveillance published in 2011, the CDC wrote, “A major contributor to the decline in morbidity was the near elimination of neonatal tetanus, a result attributable to improved childbirth practices and to increased levels of maternal immunity resulting from universal childhood vaccination.”


The polio vaccine was licensed in 1955 by Jonas Salk. As the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia explains, Salk became “an overnight hero.”


Deservedly so.


According to the CDC, the polio rate fell quickly and dramatically from more than 25,000 paralytic cases in the early 1950s. The CDC says, “The decline continued following oral polio vaccine (OPV) introduction in 1961.” Indeed, in 1960 a total of 2,525 paralytic cases were reported, compared with 61 in 1965. From 1980 through 1999, a total of 162 confirmed cases of paralytic poliomyelitis were reported, an average of 8 cases per year.


The measles vaccine was first offered in 1963. According to CDC data referenced in this article, “In the pre-vaccination era, more than 90 percent of Americans were infected with measles by the age of 15 (roughly 4 million people per year).” By the early 1970s, the rate of infections had nearly flatlined. 


Drug companies are still developing new vaccines.


In 1996, a new vaccine for chicken pox came onto the market. According to the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, there were about four million cases of chicken pox annually before the vaccine was developed. Rates are down 90 percent since then. New vaccines also can help prevent cancer in men and women. In 2018, Business Insider reported vaccines are in development that could help prevent malaria, ebola – even heroin addiction.


The bottom line is this: as this 2015 paper asserts, “Modern vaccines are among the greatest public health achievements in history, preventing thousands of illnesses and deaths each year in the United States alone.”


It is hard to put a dollar value on that achievement.