Vaccine 101: Global Health

You have learned about the history, ingredients, and benefits of vaccines in the Vaccine 101 series so far. As we continue Vaccine 101 I want to talk about the current initiatives, benefits, and future plans for vaccines as a major player in global health. Global vaccination averts two to three million deaths per year, reduces child mortality rates, and works toward worldwide disease eradication.

Smallpox Eradication: Global Vaccination Works

To illustrate the power of global vaccination efforts we look to the only eradicated human disease on the planet, smallpox. When we traveled back in time to take a look at vaccine history we started with Edward Jenner and his smallpox vaccine. Jenner used cowpox to vaccinate individuals against smallpox and started the path towards smallpox eradication nearly 150 years later. But how did the human race go from Jenner’s smallpox vaccinations to worldwide eradication of the disease?

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Fabrication of the smallpox vaccine. Image Credit: Flickr via Pan American Health Organization.

One of the major roadblocks to vaccinating worldwide is effective storage and ample supply of a vaccine. Jenner’s initial vaccine was in short supply and hard to store, due to production time and the need for refrigeration, making it difficult to spread the vaccine to certain countries. Smallpox continued to spread across the world even into the turn of the twentieth century. It wasn’t until 1949 that a freeze-dried version of the vaccine was created and brought into commercial use in 1954. This vaccine was stable and could last months without refrigeration, a necessity to making the vaccine available everywhere.  

In 1958, more than 90 countries still faced smallpox as a threat, the World Health Organization (WHO) targeted smallpox for global eradication. In 1966, with 40 countries still reporting smallpox cases, the WHO set a goal to wipe out smallpox within 10 years. Year after year new countries announced that they had seen their last smallpox, despite wars and political uprisings slowing progress. Then in 1977 the last naturally occurring case in the world occurred in Somalia, the 33rd World Health Assembly officially certified that smallpox had been eradicated from planet Earth. The eradication of smallpox has saved an estimated $1 billion US dollars every year, showing that it not only benefits global health but global finances.

Polio Eradication: The Next Big Target

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Sign at a 2011 Polio meeting by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Image Credit: Flickr via United States Mission Geneva.

The next target for eradication is the polio virus, which wreaked havoc all over the world during the mid 20th century. Polio mainly affects children under 5 years old and causes initial symptoms of fever and vomiting. It can lead to permanent paralysis, which can cause death if breathing muscles become immobilized. During our journey to learn about the history of vaccines we stopped in to see the creation of the first polio vaccine by Jonas Salk. Thanks to this vaccine, as well as an oral vaccine created by Albert Sabin, only three countries still battle with polio on a regular basis: Nigeria, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Eradicating polio from the world could save at least $40-50 billion US dollars between now and 2035, especially in low-income countries. Polio is cornered and the world is getting closer to being free of it.

Measles and Rubella Eradication: Work in Progress

A pair of diseases, measles and rubella, are vaccine-preventable illnesses that use a combined vaccine against both organisms. These two are being targeted for eradication efforts with significant progress already being made. But what makes them so important to target?

Measles can be fatal, especially in young children, and can spread efficiently from one person to another. Prior to more widespread vaccination in 1980 measles caused an estimated 2.6 millions death each year. While progress is being made over 100,000 children still died from measles in 2014. Rubella, also known as “German Measles”, can have severe consequences for pregnant women and their unborn children. In the first trimester of pregnancy rubella increases risk of giving birth to a child with birth defects, referred to as congenital rubella syndrome (CRS). Today more than 100,000 children are born with CRS each year, leaving them with lifelong complications and disabilities. These are targeted for eradication because of their severe consequences, death and possible life long complications.

While measles and rubella may not seem a large risk to those in the United States, they still remain prevalent in many countries. Even in the western hemisphere where measles and rubella have been eliminated, outbreak can still occur when unvaccinated residents are exposed to infected international travelers or travel abroad to countries that still battle these diseases. However, a cost-effective vaccine against both measles and rubella has made global progress against the two diseases. Vaccination coverage is now 85% globally compared to 72% in 2001, with measles deaths down by 79%. While progress is made there is still much more to be done to reach eradication.

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A national vaccination campaign in Paraguay to vaccinate children from 1 to 5 years old through the country in 2014. Image Credit: Flickr via Pan American Health Organization.

Vaccines: Ammunition in a Global War

Throughout human history we have battled not just one another but diseases of all kinds. Thanks to modern medicine and technology we have eradicated smallpox and helped to contain many other fatal disease like measles, polio, and rubella. Vaccines are the ammunition in the war against disease. While we can continue to win battles against these disease, the ultimate goal is to win the war and eradicate them completely so the world is no longer concerned about them.  But not every country is as lucky as the United States, access to vaccines is not as easy in other countries. Thanks to the initiatives of groups like the World Health Organization, Center for Disease Control, and many others global vaccination is becoming a reality. Through these efforts diseases like polio will become a thing of the past, just like smallpox. Be sure to check in for the final installment of Vaccine 101, where we take a look at what vaccinations the government recommends you receive and the policy behind vaccinations.

About the Author

10659344_10200100310786746_7394532827731756991_nA native Virginian (GO HOKIES!), Caitlin Reeves is a PhD candidate in the Microbiology department studying attachment of the human respiratory pathogen Mycoplasma pneumoniae to its human host. Outside of the lab she can be found planning events for UGA’s Women in Science (WiSci) organization, snuggling with her labradoodle Sherlock, or playing video games despite being a 26 year old “adult”.