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Throwback Thursday – Imagine a world without vaccines

posted Apr 26, 2018, 1:21 AM by GAVI CSO   [ updated Apr 26, 2018, 1:27 AM ]

Gabrielle Szabo, Senior Health Policy and Research Adviser

In 1980, The Police had the best-selling single in the UK, “The Empire Strikes Back” was the top-grossing film and the World Health Organization officially declared that smallpox had been eradicated, thanks to a global vaccination campaign. Smallpox had existed for more than 3,000 years, it could be spread by a cough or a sneeze and was fatal in 30% of cases. An estimated 300 million people died from smallpox during the 20th century. Reflecting on the achievement, then Director-General of the WHO Dr Margaret Chan said “the eradication of smallpox shows that with strong mutual resolve, teamwork and an international spirit of solidarity, ambitious global public health goals can be attained".

Thirty-eight years after the eradication of smallpox, humanity is on the verge of eradicating a disease for the second time in history: polio. One in 200 cases of polio results in permanent paralysis and 5-10% of paralysis cases result in death. As recently as the 1950s, polio was one of the most feared diseases in the developed world. Epidemics in the UK were causing up to 7760 cases of paralysis each year and as many as 750 deaths. Children were the worst affected, and increased outbreaks during the summer months led to theories that ice cream caused polio! The world was desperate for an explanation and with no cure, life in an ‘iron lung’ was the best science could offer paralysed children.

In 1952, discovery of the first polio vaccine changed the game. Mass vaccination campaigns began, making the leg braces and fear many children had grown up a thing of the past in countries like the UK and United States. But it was not until community organisation Rotary took up the cause, believing that it was possible to eradicate the disease, that the benefits of the vaccine started to be felt in the developing world. In 1988 the Global Polio Eradication Initiative was launched. Since then, the number of wild poliovirus cases has decreased by more than 99%. Just 22 cases were reported last year, in just two neighbouring, conflict-affected countries – Pakistan and Afghanistan. Global efforts to eradicate the disease have now saved more than 16 million people from paralysis.

Every year, World Immunisation Week celebrates the lives saved by vaccines. This year, in the weeks leading up to World Immunisation Week, the immunisation community is looking back at the impact that vaccines have had in the fight against some of the world’s deadliest diseases. Every Thursday from now until the 24th of April, these throwback social media moments (follow #TBT) imagine a world without vaccines and the future they make possible.  

In 2018, pneumonia is the biggest infectious killer of children under five. This preventable disease kills two children every minute, 920,000 in 2015. Vaccination could prevent more than half of all pneumonia deaths in children, 450,000 each year based on current infection rates. As we approach our centenary, Save the Children is calling on governments, parents, civil society and the private sector to come together to save more than 5.3 million lives from pneumonia by 2030.  History shows us that vaccines work, and with commitment and cooperation – between the public, partners and leaders – we can, without hyperbole, change the world for good.

World Immunisation Week starts on 24 April this year. Follow #VaccinesWork #ProtectedTogether and #TBT for related material and share!