50 Years of Vaccines: 154 Million Lives Saved, Study Reveals

50 Years of Vaccines: 154 Million Lives Saved, Study Reveals

Vaccines have been transformative for public health. New research led by the World Health Organization (WHO) reveals that vaccines have saved approximately 154 million lives over the past 50 years, primarily protecting children under five, with around two-thirds of those saved being under one year old.

A Half-Century of Immunization Efforts

In 1974, the World Health Assembly launched the Expanded Program on Immunization (EPI), aiming to vaccinate all children against diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis (whooping cough), measles, polio, tuberculosis, and smallpox by 1990. The program later expanded to cover more diseases.

Marking 50 years since the EPI's inception, the study's models show that a child under ten has a 40% higher chance of surviving to their next birthday due to vaccines. This increased survival chance extends into adulthood, with a 50-year-old having a 16% higher chance of celebrating their next birthday.

Study Details

Researchers used mathematical and statistical models incorporating vaccine coverage data and population numbers from 194 countries for the years 1974–2024. The analysis included vaccines for 14 diseases, with 11 from the EPI, and additional vaccines for specific regions.

Major Findings

  • Children Benefit Most: Since 1974, childhood death rates before the first birthday have more than halved, with vaccines accounting for nearly 40% of this reduction.
  • Greatest Impact in the 1980s: Intensive global efforts to combat diseases like measles, polio, and whooping cough saved many lives during this decade.
  • Measles: Approximately 60% of the 154 million lives saved were due to measles vaccination, given the disease's high transmission rate.
  • Health Equity: Vaccination programs have significantly improved child survival rates, especially in low- and middle-income countries and regions with weaker health systems.


Ongoing Challenges

Declining vaccine coverage can lead to devastating epidemics. The COVID-19 pandemic caused a drop in measles vaccine coverage from 86% in 2019 to 83% in 2022. In Australia, childhood vaccination rates have also declined.

Conclusion

This study underscores the critical importance of maintaining and expanding vaccination programs globally. While the research didn't cover vaccines like COVID-19 and HPV and has inherent uncertainties, the clear message is that continuous investment in vaccination is essential to keep saving lives.