Smallpox was responsible for around 300 million deaths in the 20th Century. But thanks to vaccinations, one of the most devastating diseases known to humanity has been wiped out.

The eradication of smallpox is just one example of how global access to vaccines has saved countless lives around the world.

Yet in recent years anti-vaccination movements have gained traction, spreading skepticism about the safety and efficacy of certain vaccines. As a result, vaccination levels have fallen in some communities leading to outbreaks of diseases that had been all but eradicated.

Vaccines are placed on a tray inside the Taipei City Hospital October 1, 2010. In preparation for the start of the flu season, health authorities in Taiwan started a mass immunisation program on Friday providing vaccines against the H1N1 flu virus and pneumonia. REUTERS/Nicky Loh (TAIWAN - Tags: HEALTH SOCIETY) - GM1E6A10WGP01
The introduction of vaccination revolutionized medical science
Image: REUTERS/Nicky Loh

The scourge of disease

When it comes to a debate over the efficacy of vaccinations it is best to let the facts speak for themselves.

In the United States, diseases that caused widespread misery and death in past centuries have been eradicated or almost eradicated.

Cases of diphtheria – a deadly disease that affects a person’s breathing – reduced 100% following the introduction of a vaccine.

Polio, a life-threatening virus that can cause temporary or permanent paralysis, has also been wiped out in the US as a result of vaccination.

A small number of measles and rubella cases are still recorded in the US, although vaccines have been successful in reducing rates by 99.9%.

Image: Der Spiegel/Statista

These figures are comparable to improvements seen in many other developed countries.

But it’s a different story in parts of the world where children are not routinely immunized.

The World Health Organization (WHO) says immunization currently prevents an estimated 2 to 3 million deaths a year. But an additional 1.5 million deaths could be avoided if global vaccination coverage improves.

Opposition to vaccination

Perhaps surprisingly, given the astonishing success rate, some people remain vehemently opposed to vaccines.

While some have religious objections, others see it as a matter of personal choice. Some people believe that giving children multiple vaccinations for different diseases at the same time can be harmful.

There is also the claim that vaccine-preventable diseases had already begun to disappear before the introduction of vaccines, because of better hygiene and sanitation.

But it’s clear that if we stopped vaccinating, not only would diseases such as whooping cough, polio and measles not continue to disappear, they would make a comeback.

Experts and health bodies such as the WHO have debunked many common misconceptions about vaccination.

Aysha, 4, suffering from measles, lies on a bed after being brought to the Mayo Hospital for treatment in Lahore May 27, 2013. Measles, a highly contagious viral disease, has killed 260 people across Pakistan in 2013 so far, with nearly 11,000 cases reported, according to the World Health Organisation. REUTERS/Mohsin Raza   (PAKISTAN - Tags: HEALTH SOCIETY) - GM1E95S04D801
Without vaccination measles would claim many more lives
Image: REUTERS/Mohsin Raza

The future of vaccination

Vaccines have the potential to be used to treat as well as prevent infectious and noninfectious diseases. In the future this kind of therapeutic usage is expected to become more common.

Meanwhile, technologies are being developed that will improve the simplicity and effectiveness of vaccine delivery and have the potential to remove the need for multiple shots.

Another significant advancement is needle-free vaccination. Meanwhile, nanopatches and nasal-sprays and edible vaccines are just some of the other solutions being developed.