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Vaccines save lives

How vaccination has saved more lives and prevented more serious diseases than any advance in recent medical history

Due to vaccinations, we no longer see smallpox, and polio has almost been eradicated. No wonder vaccination is considered a modern miracle.

Vaccination is one of the greatest breakthroughs in modern medicine. No other medical intervention has done more to save lives and improve quality of life.

Smallpox ravaged and killed thousands of people in Europe in the 18th century. Once a person had caught it, the disease would kill around a third of victims and leave survivors scarred or blinded.

Thankfully, smallpox was officially wiped out in 1980. If it were still common, it would cause an estimated 2 million deaths every year around the world.


By 2002, the incurable and deadly disease of polio had also been eradicated from much of the world. This included the UK, the rest of Europe, the western Pacific and the Americas.

Polio, which is caused by a virus that destroys nerve cells, used to threaten millions of people worldwide. At its peak, more than 1,000 children a day were paralysed by polio globally.

Up to 1 in 1,000 children and 1 in 75 adults who caught the infection were paralysed – not only in their arms or legs, but also their breathing muscles, which put them at risk of suffocation.

The only way to keep children with polio-induced respiratory problems alive was to put them in a giant metal machine, called an "iron lung", to help them breathe. Hospital wards with children in iron lungs were common just 50 years ago.

Whooping cough and diphtheria

Thanks to the NHS and its childhood vaccination programme, children in the UK are now protected against many dangerous diseases. As well as polio, this includes many other potentially deadly infections, such as diphtheria and whooping cough (pertussis).

In 1940, there were more than 60,000 cases and 3,283 deaths from diphtheria in the UK. Before the 1950s, the country saw an average of 120,000 cases of whooping cough each year.

By 2008, the vaccination of children had almost eliminated diphtheria (there were just six cases in the UK that year – all imported), and vaccination against whooping cough had dramatically reduced whooping cough to 1,028 cases.

Meningitis C

Meningitis C has been virtually eliminated since the men C vaccine was introduced in the UK in 1999 (the first country in the world to offer the jab). There has been a 99% reduction in cases of meningitis C among those aged under 20 since vaccination started.

In 1998, the year before the vaccine was introduced, there were 78 deaths among children and teens. There were no deaths in these groups in 2007 and 2008.

Why we still need vaccines

All these diseases are now so rare that it’s easy to underestimate the importance of children’s vaccinations.

However, whooping cough and diphtheria are still a threat. The diseases may be rare now, but if children aren’t vaccinated, they can return with a vengeance.

After a scare about the safety of the whooping cough vaccine in the 1970s and 80s, parents stopped vaccinating their children against the disease. This led to three epidemics, and at least 100 children died after catching the disease.

When Russia’s childhood vaccination programme collapsed during the break-up of the Soviet Union, it triggered a mass epidemic of diphtheria.

New vaccines

In 2013 alone, three new vaccines were introduced into the NHS routine vaccination programme:

The future of vaccination

There will be many more potentially lifesaving vaccines in the years to come. Research is thriving, with more than 150 new vaccines currently being tested.

We will soon have an improved pneumococcal vaccine that offers protection against more strains of the disease, a new meningitis B vaccine for babies and there's promising work on longer-lasting vaccines against flu.

Last Updated: 17/02/2022 16:08:40
The information on this page has been adapted by NHS Wales from original content supplied by NHS UK NHS website