With Thanksgiving approaching, November is a time when we pause to reflect on what we’re thankful for. We often think about family and friends, but many technologies exist on which we rely — electricity, television and the Internet among them. In this same vein, we thought we’d take this time to reflect on another important technology on which we’ve come to rely — vaccines.
The numbers of people who suffered and died from vaccine-preventable diseases before vaccines were available afford us a snapshot of what the world might be like if vaccines were not available.
Before the chickenpox vaccine was available in 1995, 4 million people were infected with chickenpox and 100 died every year in the U.S. alone. In the 10 years following introduction of the vaccine, the number of people infected with chickenpox decreased to about 400,000 each year with few deaths.
With the recommendation for a second dose of chickenpox vaccine, the number of cases of chickenpox decreased to fewer than 40,000 per year. Unfortunately, the chickenpox vaccine is still not an option for many people in the world because of competing economic needs throughout the world.
Today, 80 to 90 million people, approximately the current population of Germany, still get chickenpox every year.
In the early part of the 20th century, diphtheria was one of the most common killers of young children. In fact, in 1921, before the vaccine was routinely available, more than 200,000 people in the U.S. were infected with diphtheria. Almost 16,000 people died from diphtheria that year — about the same number of people as the entire population of Concord, MA. Today, because of high vaccination rates, diphtheria has been virtually eliminated in the United States.
Every year before the Hib vaccine was available, about 25,000 children in the U.S. suffered severe disease caused by Hib infection. Affecting mostly children, the disease led to meningitis, bloodstream infections, pneumonia, joint infections and epiglottitis (swelling of the epiglottis, the tissue that covers the trachea [windpipe] when swallowing).
To put this number in perspective, more people were infected with Hib than the number of people who died in the tsunami in Minamisanriku, Japan, in 2011. Unlike the tsunami, which was an act of nature that couldn’t be prevented, severe infection caused by Hib can be prevented.
Today, fewer than 25 cases of Hib and fewer than five deaths occur in the U.S. every year due to the availability of the Hib vaccine.
An estimated 3 to 4 million cases of measles occurred every year in the U.S. prior to the availability of the measles vaccine, causing about 100,000 people to be hospitalized and 500 to 1,000 to die each year. Most cases occurred in children aged 5 to 9.
The first measles vaccine was licensed in 1963. With that, and eventually the development of a better vaccine, the incidence of measles decreased by more than 98 percent.
Unfortunately, measles still occurs in other parts of the world and cases are being imported into the U.S. due to international travel. In fact, 159 cases of measles have been reported so far in the U.S., putting 2013 on track to have the highest number of measles cases in more than a decade.
The mumps vaccine first became available in 1967. Just three years earlier, about 212,000 cases of mumps occurred in the U.S. — two times the number of people who can fit in the new Dallas Cowboys stadium in Arlington, TX.
Although mumps infections resolve on their own, some people infected with the virus can become permanently deaf. Today, fewer than 500 cases of mumps occur in the U.S. annually. Unfortunately, mumps still imposes a heavy burden in other parts of the world, with about 700,000 cases occurring worldwide each year.
In 1950, five years before the first polio vaccine became available 3 million people were infected with polio. As a result, 20,000 to 30,000 people became paralyzed — about twice as many as the number of people who die from slip-and-fall accidents every year.
Polio was eliminated from the United States by 1979, and, natural infections have been eliminated from all countries around the world except three: Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria.
Efforts directed toward eradication, that is, worldwide elimination, are dedicated to making this the second disease to have this distinction (the first was smallpox). For this reason, we continue to vaccinate with the polio vaccine.
Almost 60,000 people in the U.S. were diagnosed with rubella in 1969. Fortunately, a vaccine was introduced shortly thereafter, causing the incidence of rubella to rapidly decline in the U.S.
In 2004, rubella was declared eliminated from the U.S. Today, fewer than 10 cases per year occur in this country.
So as we have come to rely on electricity, televisions and the Internet, so too, have we come to rely on the availability of vaccines, without which our lives and our daily worries would certainly be different. Therefore, this Thanksgiving, don’t forget to include vaccines on your list of things for which you are grateful.
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