Vaccines Have Saved 154 Million Lives, Mostly Babies, Over Past 50 Years

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Global vaccination efforts have saved an estimated 154 million lives, including 101 million infants, a new study led by the World Health Organization (WHO) shows.

Immunization has contributed more to the health and survival of newborns than any other medical advance, researchers concluded.

The measles vaccine has had the most significant impact on reducing infant deaths, accounting for 60% (94 million) of the lives saved by immunization, researchers said.

Overall, vaccines have saved the equivalent of six lives every minute of every year for the past half-century, the WHO study says.

“Vaccines are among the most powerful inventions in history, making once-feared diseases preventable,” WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a WHO news release.

“Thanks to vaccines, smallpox has been eradicated, polio is on the brink, and with the more recent development of vaccines against diseases like malaria and cervical cancer, we are pushing back the frontiers of disease,” Ghebreyesus said. “With continued research, investment and collaboration, we can save millions more lives today and in the next 50 years.”

During the past five decades, vaccination against 14 diseases has directly contributed to reducing infant deaths by 40% around the world and more than 50% in the African region, researchers found.

Those vaccines fight diphtheria, influenza, hepatitis B, Japanese encephalitis, measles, meningitis A, pertussis, invasive pneumococcal disease, polio, rotavirus, rubella, tetanus, tuberculosis and yellow fever.

Each life saved through immunization produced an average 66 additional years of full health, researchers estimated, adding up to a total of 10.2 billion full health years enjoyed by the planet’s population during the past 50 years.

For example, polio vaccination has allowed more than 20 million people to walk who would otherwise have been paralyzed. The world is on the verge of eradicating polio, researchers noted.

These gains highlight the importance of promoting vaccination, particularly among the estimated 67 million children who missed out on one or more vaccines during the pandemic years, researchers say.

The study marks the 50th anniversary of the Expanded Program on Immunization, founded in 1974 by the World Health Assembly to promote childhood vaccination around the world.

Fewer than 5% of infants had routine access to immunization with the program launched, the report says. Today, 84% of infants are protected with three doses of the vaccine against diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis, which serves as the global marker for immunization coverage.

But there are troubling and unnecessary holes in vaccine coverage.

Even though most lives have been saved through the measles vaccine, there are still 33 million children who missed a measles dose in 2022. Nearly 22 million missed their first dose and 11 million their second, researchers said.

Coverage of 95% or greater with two doses of measles vaccine is needed to protect communities from outbreaks of the highly virulent disease.

Currently, the global coverage rate for the first dose of measles vaccine is 83% and the second dose is 74%, contributing to increasing outbreaks throughout the world.

Measles was declared eliminated in the United States in 2000 due to high vaccination coverage.

However, seven U.S. outbreaks of the disease have been reported in 2024, due to declining vaccine coverage in some parts of the nation, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“It’s inspiring to see what vaccines have made possible over the last fifty years, thanks to the tireless efforts of governments, global partners and health workers to make them more accessible to more people,” said Dr. Chris Elias, president of global development at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

“We cannot let this incredible progress falter,” Elias added. “By continuing to invest in immunization, we can ensure that every child — and every person — has the chance to live a healthy and productive life.”

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You’ve got questions. That’s a good thing.

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