Odessa, TX – Before widespread vaccination, diseases like polio, smallpox, rubella, and measles crippled and killed millions of people each year. Now that vaccines are common, some of these diseases are virtually non-existent.
The World Health Assembly declared smallpox eradicated—eliminated worldwide—in 1980, and the Global Polio Eradication Initiative has managed to drastically decrease polio cases.
Before the smallpox virus was destroyed in the early 1980s, many people received the smallpox vaccine. As a result, they have a permanent mark on their upper left arm. Smallpox once killed three out of every ten people who contracted it.
Before the smallpox vaccine existed, variolation – direct exposure to smallpox sores – was the usual immunization method. Material from smallpox sores was inhaled or rubbed into the skin. It was hoped that this would cause a smallpox infection that could be controlled and give a person immunity in the future.
Between the late 1960s and the early 1980s, the World Health Organization began a worldwide immunization effort to eradicate – or completely destroy – the virus. If you’re from a younger generation, you probably don’t have a smallpox vaccination scar. Typically, only people over 40 years of age might have the dime-sized dent on their upper left arm. This mark is a distinctive sign that you received the vaccine at some point.
The smallpox vaccine holds a live virus. It creates a controlled infection that forces your immune system to defend your body against the virus. The exposure to the virus tends to leave a sore and itchy bump behind. This bump later becomes a larger blister that leaves a permanent scar as it dries up. There haven’t been any smallpox cases since 1977.
Lest we forget why vaccines and getting vaccinated is important, here’s a look at diseases that once ravaged families and communities.
Before polio vaccines became available in the 1950s, polio outbreaks caused more than 15,000 cases of paralysis in the United States each year — and two to ten percent of children paralyzed by polio died because the virus affected the muscles necessary to breathe. Many children who survived polio apparently unscathed developed muscle pain, weakness or paralysis as adults, a condition called post-polio syndrome. Thanks to widespread vaccination, the United States has been polio-free since 1979.
Tetanus bacteria spores live in soil, dust and manure; when they enter the body (often, via a puncture wound or scrape), spores develop into bacteria (Clostridium tetani), causing infection and producing a toxin. The toxin causes muscle spasms and potentially paralysis. You may have heard of “lockjaw.” That’s a tetanus infection. In some cases, the muscle spasms are so strong that they break bones or interfere with breathing. As many as 1 out of 5 people who get tetanus dies. Because most American children are vaccinated against tetanus, the U.S. experiences only about 30 cases of tetanus per year; almost all these cases occur in unvaccinated people.
Hepatitis B is a virus that can cause liver cancer and death. Because chronic hepatitis B doesn’t always cause symptoms, a lot of people who have the virus don’t know it and can unwittingly pass the virus on to others via sex or childbirth. Babies who are infected at birth are most likely to develop chronic hepatitis and later liver damage, so public health officials recommend vaccinating children soon after birth. According to a 2006 article in the Journal of Clinical Virology, the incidence of liver cancer in children decreased by 75 percent worldwide after widespread hepatitis B vaccination of newborns.
Hepatitis A is another virus that can cause liver failure and death. Before the vaccine became available in the U.S. (in 1995), the country typically had about 30,000 cases of hepatitis A per year. Now, the number of hepatitis cases in the U.S. is down 95 percent. Because hepatitis A is still common in many parts of the world (and spread via contaminated food and water, or personal contact with an infected person), the CDC recommends routine vaccination of children. Adults who have not received a hepatitis A vaccine may need one prior to international travel.
Rubella (German measles)
During the United States’ last major rubella outbreak (1964-1965), an estimated 12.5 million people got rubella, 11,000 pregnant women lost their babies to rubella-related miscarriages, 2,100 newborns died, and 20,000 babies were born with congenital rubella syndrome, a condition that can cause deafness, brain damage, and heart defects. The U.S. initiated a rubella vaccination program in 1969, and now, fewer than 10 cases of rubella are reported in the U.S. each year. Since 2012, all U.S. rubella cases have been contracted overseas.
In 1978, the CDC set a goal to eliminate measles from the United States. The measles vaccine, introduced in 1963, was already having a significant impact, and widespread use of the MMR vaccine (a single shot that includes measles, mumps, and rubella vaccines) helped drive numbers even lower. In 2000, the CDC declared measles “eliminated” from the U.S., as there’d been no continuous disease transmission for more than a year. Sadly, there have been measles outbreaks since then, as vaccination rates in some communities around the country are not high enough to maintain herd immunity.
Before the chickenpox vaccine was approved and widely available, approximately four million Americans got chickenpox each year, more than 10,500 were hospitalized and 100 to 150 people died. Since the varicella (chickenpox) vaccine was added to the childhood immunization schedule in 1995, chickenpox cases, hospitalizations, and deaths have declined more than 90 percent. The chickenpox vaccine also appears to decrease a child’s risk of contracting shingles, a painful viral rash, by more than half.
As many as one out of five children younger than age 5 who contract diphtheria die. In 1921, before widespread vaccination, the U.S. recorded 206,000 cases of diphtheria, resulting in 15,520 deaths. Decades of vaccination have virtually eliminated diphtheria in the U.S. Between 2004 to 2008, no cases were recorded in the U.S. Over the past decade, the CDC has noted fewer than five cases in the United States.
Before the mumps vaccine was introduced in 1967, mumps was one of the most common causes of deafness and meningitis (an infection of the lining around the brain and spinal cord that can lead to encephalitis, or brain swelling). After the vaccine was added to the childhood vaccination schedule, cases of mumps dropped 99%; now, only a few hundred people contract the disease each year. That number would likely be even lower if vaccination numbers were higher.
One thing is for certain, if the global community of the 1950’s through 1980’s had the “you can’t make me take that” mentality like so many people these days have, many of these viruses and diseases would still be running around. Covid-19 could probably be added to this list, but that would first require people to see past the ends of their noses.