Vaccines saved lives – scientific evidence

There are many canards propagated by the vaccine deniers to support their personal beliefs (really, denialism) about the safety and effectiveness of vaccines. One of their more popular beliefs is that vaccines didn’t end many of the deadly diseases, but improved sanitation, healthcare, nutrition or magical fairies (also known as homeopathy) ended these diseases.

There is even a subgroup of these believers who think that the CDC, historians, and everyone else is lying about the epidemics that existed prior to vaccinations–let’s call this group history deniers. They reject the scientific and historical evidence that vaccines saved lives – amazing.

So, is there scientific evidence that vaccines actually ended these epidemics? Yes there is, and it’s unequivocal. Unless you want to embrace historical revisionism, and somehow all of the health care records and epidemiological information was faked, vaccines saved lives – lots of lives.

Real scientific evidence

 

All that needs to be taken out of this study are a couple of tables that illustrate effectively the reduction in morbidity (illness from the disease) and mortality (death from the disease) in the USA from the recent past (1940’s through 1960’s).

Copyright ©2013 American Medical Association
Copyright ©2013 American Medical Association

Let’s look at this data carefully:

  • Diphtheria. 100% reduction in cases and death.
  • Measles. 99.9% reduction in cases and 100% reduction in deaths.
  • Mumps. 97% reduction in cases, and 100% reduction in deaths.
  • Polio. 100% reduction.
  • Rubella. 99.9% reduction in cases and 100% reduction in deaths.
  • Smallpox. 100% reduction.

All vaccine-preventable diseases except for whooping cough (pertussis) and tetanus, vaccines dropped the death rate to 0. And in the two exceptions, the death rate was reduced by over 99%. And if you want to argue that better sanitation, you must think that we had bad sanitation in the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s.

In fact, most modern sanitation systems date from that period of time (or even earlier). The germ theory of disease was well understood even in the mid 1800’s, and sanitation systems were already found in large cities and sanitation-related infectious diseases were well in decline. However, not all diseases are sanitation related, so it would be illogical to assume that sanitation was the major reason for reduction in these vaccine-preventable diseases.

JAMA Table 2
Copyright ©2013 American Medical Association

We can also look (Table 2) at vaccine preventable diseases of more recent history, using epidemiological statistics from the 1980’s, a period so recent that the differences between quality of sanitation, healthcare or other factors, at least with respect to infectious diseases, is not significant. Hepatitis A has dropped by 87%. Hepatitis B by over 80%. Hib (Haemophilus influenzae type b) has dropped by over 99%. Even varicella (chickenpox) has dropped by over 85%, despite only recently being added to the vaccine schedule.

The authors conclude:

[infobox icon=”quote-left”]Vaccines are among the greatest achievements of biomedical science and public health, stimulating protective immune responses against acute and chronic infectious diseases, as well as some infectious diseases that result in cancer. In the United States, vaccination programs have made a major contribution to the elimination of many vaccine-preventable diseases and significantly reduced the incidence of others.

Vaccine-preventable diseases have societal and economic costs in addition to the morbidity and premature deaths resulting from these diseases—the costs include missed time from school and work, physician office visits, and hospitalizations. National recommendations provide guidance for use of vaccines to prevent or eliminate 17 vaccine-preventable diseases, namely diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus, poliomyelitis, measles, mumps, rubella (including congenital rubella syndrome), influenza, invasive Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib), hepatitis B, hepatitis A, rotavirus, varicella, herpes zoster (shingles), and disease caused by many of the most important types of Streptococcus pneumoniae, Neisseria meningitidis, and human papillomavirus (HPV).[/infobox]

Even today, with our modern sanitation (mostly) and modern healthcare (thank you Obamacare), there is overwhelming evidence that over 700,000 lives in the USA have been saved since a robust immunization effort began in the USA to cover all children.

Summary

 

The anti-vaccine trope that “vaccines didn’t save lives” is the epitome of intellectual dishonesty. David Gorski asked “why do they do this?”

[infobox icon=”quote-left”]To bring the U.S. vaccine program to its knees. Or the U.K. program. Or whatever program where the anti-vaccine program has taken hold. The reason is that, no matter how much science says it isn’t, to the anti-vaccine activist, it’s first and foremost always all about the vaccines.[/infobox]

These data are not difficult to analyze. The morbidity and mortality rate for each of these diseases has dropped significantly (often to 0) in the 50-60 years since vaccines were introduced to the American public.

Thousands of lives were saved every year. Millions saved since the 1940’s. The cultural memory of the horrifying experiences of these diseases has been lost. Maybe that’s why it’s so easy to ignore the historical facts. But there is just massive amounts of evidence that vaccines saved lives – some people can’t help but deny it.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in September 2013. It has been completely revised and updated to include more comprehensive information, to improve readability and to add current research.

Key citations:

 

The Original Skeptical Raptor
Chief Executive Officer at SkepticalRaptor
Lifetime lover of science, especially biomedical research. Spent years in academics, business development, research, and traveling the world shilling for Big Pharma. I love sports, mostly college basketball and football, hockey, and baseball. I enjoy great food and intelligent conversation. And a delicious morning coffee!