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Vaccines are one of the most efficient ways of saving childrens' lives in both developed and developing countries

Track record

Being immunised through vaccination is one of modern medicine's most powerful ways to save lives and prevent illness from serious and fatal infectious diseases. Few other health interventions have had "such a major effect on mortality reduction."1 Vaccines' track record in global public health speaks for itself:

  • Smallpox: declared eradicated by WHO in 1979 after a global vaccination effort;
  • Polio: endemic in 125 countries in 1988 paralysing an estimated 350,000 children every year; today endemic in only four countries;2
  • Measles: from 2000-2007, widespread vaccination reduced number of measles deaths by 78%;3
  • Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib) vaccine, introduced in Uganda in 2002, has virtually eliminated Hib meningitis there.

Expanded Program on Immunisation

The global effort to extend vaccination to developing countries began in 1974, when WHO founded the Expanded Program on Immunization (EPI). This initiative helped countries establish the infrastructure to deliver a package of six vaccine antigens against tuberculosis, diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, measles and polio.

How vaccines work

Each child is born with a natural immune system to fight infections from bacteria and viruses. When these germs - called antigens - enter the body, the immune system produces antibodies to fight them. Our immune system can "remember" the antigens and defend against them in future. This is immunisation.

Vaccines contain antigens or parts of antigens that cause disease although they have either been killed or greatly weakened. They are not strong enough to cause illness, but do trigger our immune system to immunise against that disease.

The first vaccine ever invented was against smallpox and discovered by Edward Jenner in the 1770s. However, it was not until Louis Pasteur developed rabies and anthrax vaccines 100 years later that the first compulsory vaccination laws were passed.

Throughout the 1980s, WHO and UNICEF joined forces to achieve Universal Childhood Immunization of the six EPI vaccines. Today, all developing countries have national immunisation programmes and most of the world's poorest children are immunised with at least these vaccines.

By 2001, vaccination was averting 61% of measles deaths, 69% of tetanus deaths, 78% of pertussis deaths, 94% of diphtheria deaths and 98% of polio deaths that would have occurred in the absence of vaccination.4

Surge of new vaccines

The last 20 years have seen a surge in the number of new vaccines, with more than 30 common infectious diseases now preventable through immunisation.

With the launch of GAVI in 2000, more and more developing countries have introduced relatively new vaccines, such as heptatitis B (hepB) and Hib vaccines, into their routine vaccination programmes. The original EPI vaccines plus hepB and Hib vaccines prevent more than 2.5 million future deaths each year.5

It is estimated that new vaccines against the two leading causes of child pneumonia and diarrhoea - pneumococcal conjugate vaccine (PCV) and rotavirus vaccine, respectively - could save about one million children's lives every year.


1 Initiative for Vaccine Research, WHO: State of the art of vaccine research and development. January 2005

2 Jamison DT, Breman JG, Measham AR, Alleyne G, Claeson M, Evans DB, et al, editors. Disease Control Priorities in Developing Countries. 2nd edition. New York: Oxford University Press; 2006

3 Global reductions in measles mortality, 2000-2008 and the risk of measles resurgence. Wkly Epidemiol Rec. 2009 Dec 4; 84(49):505-516

4 Brenzel L, Wolfson LJ, Fox-Rushby J, Miller M, Halsey NA. Vaccine-Preventable Diseases. In: Jamison DT, Breman JG, Measham AR, Alleyne G, Claeson M, Evans DB, et al, editors. Disease Control Priorities in Developing Countries. 2nd edition. New York: Oxford University Press; 2006. p. 389-412

5 World Health Organization, UNICEF, World Bank. State of the world's vaccines and immunization. 3rd edition. Geneva: WHO. 2009.

6 unicef.org: Immunization. http://www.unicef.org/immunization/index.html

10 million

It is estimated that over 10 million children have been immunised against pneumococcal disease with GAVI support by the end of 2012.

WHO Department of Immunisation, Vaccines and Biologicals’ estimates and projections, as of October 2012

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