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Why vaccines work in the fight against measles and other infectious diseases

Richard Moscicki, M.D.
Richard Moscicki, M.D. February 13, 2019

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It is often said that vaccines are only second to clean drinking water in terms of public health impact. In recent years, misinformation about vaccines, especially childhood vaccinations, has spread and left many with questions about their efficacy and necessity. It’s important to understand that preventative vaccines work with your body to develop immunity to a disease by imitating an infection to teach the immune system how to recognize, remember and target microbial invaders, like viruses and bacteria, without actually causing an infection.

Like other medicines, vaccines undergo a rigorous research and development process in order to ensure safety and efficacy, and continue to be monitored long after U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval. The current U.S. vaccine supply is the safest in history, due in part to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC’s) long-standing vaccine safety program, which closely and constantly monitors the safety of vaccines. One important element of the program, the Immunization Safety Office, monitors possible vaccine side effects and works with public health stakeholders to assess possible connections to vaccines. For example, while some have had concerns that autism spectrum disorder might be linked to the vaccines children receive, the results of multiple studies have shown that there is no link between receiving vaccines and developing autism spectrum disorder.

Vaccines represent some of the most impactful public health advances, helping to prevent the spread of infectious diseases and, in many places around the world, eliminating some of the most devastating conditions. As infection rates from the measles disease continue to spread across the U.S., the critical role vaccines play in preventing disease transmission and curbing health care costs is becoming increasingly apparent.

The real power of vaccines can be seen when successful immunization programs lead to the regional elimination of terrible infectious diseases such as polio, which once had a prevalence of tens of thousands of cases every year in the U.S.  Thanks to vaccination, no cases of polio have been identified as originating in the U.S. since 1979. Importantly, these disease success stories are a direct consequence of immunization conducted broadly at the population level, reducing or eliminating even small groups of non-immunized people where the disease can hide and reemerge later.

For measles in particular, the CDC notes, “before the measles vaccination program started in 1963, an estimated 3 to 4 million people got measles each year in the United States.” Today, measles vaccinations have helped to eliminate 99 percent of cases in the U.S. and the World Health Organization estimates that 17.1 million lives have been saved globally since 2000 due to the measles vaccine.

Not only do vaccines help to prevent illnesses and in some cases treat disease, but they also save health care costs. In the U.S., 16 diseases are now preventable as a result of childhood vaccines, resulting in an estimated $1.4 trillion of savings in societal costs. Vaccines have also helped to save an estimated $9.9 billion in direct health care costs.

Advances in science and technology are driving these increases in survival and improving the quality of life for people around the globe. Other examples of vaccine successes include:

  • Smallpox, at one point one of the deadliest diseases in existence, has been eradicated around the world as a result of vaccination.
  • Following the introduction of the first polio vaccine in 1955, the crippling infectious disease has been eliminated in the U.S. and by 2015, just 74 cases of the disease were reported around the world.
  • The recent introduction of the human papilloma virus (HPV) vaccine has changed the trajectory of cervical cancer, by preventing infection of the HPV strains most likely to cause cancers.
  • A new wave of therapeutic vaccines has the potential to treat diseases, including many cancers

Given the advancement of science and innovation at our disposal today, underutilization of vaccines represents a missed opportunity for increased public health for all citizens. For more information about measles or vaccines, visit www.cdc.gov.

Topics: Vaccines, Infectious Diseases