10 Most Important Vaccines in Human History


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Human life expectancy, particularly in developed countries, wouldn't be nearly as good without the presence of vaccinations. They're the most important inventions in human history, as they've saved countless lives worldwide by preventing infectious diseases. The first vaccines were created centuries ago using primitive knowledge and ideas of medicine and the human body. As we've evolved, so have the outcomes of experimentation, bringing forth solutions for polio, measles, smallpox and several other debilitating and fatal diseases.

  1. Polio

    Developed by American medical researcher and virologist Jonas Salk, the polio vaccine, or inactivated poliovirus vaccine (IPV), enables recipients to develop protective antibody to the three types of serotypes of poliovirus. Three doses ensure that more than 99% are immune to the disease, a staggering rate given the seriousness of the affliction. In 1952, more than 55,000 polio cases were reported in the U.S., with more than 20,000 suffering paralysis and more than 3,000 dying. The creation of additional vaccines has resulted in the elimination of the disease in most countries, notably reducing incidence from 350,000 cases in 1988 to fewer than 2,000 in 2007.

  2. Measles

    Ten years after Salk's breakthrough, another American completed the development of a vaccine that would neutralize a feared and fatal disease. John Franklin Enders, "The Father of Modern Vaccine" had already received a Nobel Prize for his research leading to the development of the polio vaccine, and worked just as hard to find a solution for measles. When he did in 1963, more than 500,000 Americans had measles, which killed about one in 1,000. In the following years, cases dropped into the 10,000s, with the occasional increase during controllable outbreaks until its elimination in 2000.

  3. Smallpox

    Given its high mortality rate, it's a good thing that smallpox was the target of the very first successful vaccination. A problem that dates back more than 10,000 years, it has been targeted by humans on numerous occasions in an attempt to prevent incidence, a process that was accelerated by Edward Jenner in 1796 as he studied the cowpox virus. Almost 200 years later, smallpox was eradicated. Today, it's most feared for potentially being used for bioterrorism, as it only exists in laboratories.

  4. Rabies

    Although it's a rare disease, the survival rate of symptomatic rabies is almost zero. The first preventative breakthrough occurred in 1995, when French scientists Louis Pasteur and Emile Roux used their newly developed vaccine — which had been harvested form infected rabbits — on a young boy who had been mauled by a rabid dog. As research evolved, the human diploid cell rabies vaccine was first administered in 1967 and has since become the most common.

  5. Rotavirus

    Children in Third World countries have long battled the devastating consequences of diarrhoeal disease caused by rotavirus, which is why the creation of a vaccine was essential. Recently, Rotarix from GlaxoSmithKline and RotaTeq from Merck have been effective. According to a study conducted by a researcher at Emory University, rotavirus vaccination would prevent 228,000 deaths per year and 13.7 million hospital visits per year. Appropriately, in 2009, the World Health Organization urged national immunization programs to include the vaccine in their programs.

  6. Pertussis

    Just fewer than 300,000 deaths per year result from pertussis, also known as whooping cough or the 100 days' cough. A major problem in the U.S. during the World War II era, the disease has been reduced by 80 percent, earning the vaccine a recommendation from the World Health Organization. While immunization doesn't ensure someone will be protected for the rest of their life, it should be noted that adults who contract the disease rarely die.

  7. Influenza

    According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, from 1976 to 2006, the yearly total of deaths in the U.S. from influenza ranged from 3,000 to 49,000 people. Historically, outbreaks of the virus have caused millions of deaths at a time worldwide. Still a major threat, it can be neutralized with a yearly flu shot or nasal spray — each new vaccine targets the newly mutated virus, which is constantly evolving. Of course, young children, people 65 years of age and older, and pregnant women are the most susceptible to the illness, so it's especially important they take preventative measures.

  8. Chickenpox

    For generations, contracting chicken pox was a rite of passage for children. Once they had endured it, they would never have to worry about it again. The varicella vaccine, administered twice to children under the age of 13, ensures that today's children never even have to deal with it. Because adult contraction of chickenpox is more serious, it's also recommended that adults who've never had the illness receive immunizations.

  9. Meningococcal

    Affecting the protective layer surrounding the brain and spinal cord, meningitis is a bacterial infection that can result in brain damage or death. According to the CDC, 2,600 people contract meningococcal disease each year, and one in 10 of those die. Fortunately, there are three effective vaccines administered in the states — Menomune, Menactra and Menveo — though the duration of immunity each provides varies and none surpass three years.

  10. Human Papillomavirus

    The Human Papillomavirus virus is spread through sexual contact and is asymptomatic, but some types can cause cervical cancer, an affliction that has affected 12,710 women — killing 4,290 — in 2011, according to the National Cancer Institute. For that reason, 11-and 12-year-old girls are strongly advised to receive Cervarix or Gardasil vaccines, though the latter has been linked to 32 deaths. Nevertheless, the CDC recommends it, as many medical experts still consider it a breakthrough vaccine.

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