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Global immunization efforts have saved at least 154 million lives over the past 50 years

24 April 2024 | Geneva / New York / Seattle – A major landmark study in be published by The Lancet
reveals that global immunization efforts have saved an estimated 154 million lives – or the equivalent of
6 lives every minute of every year – over the past 50 years. The vast majority of lives saved – 101 million
– were those of infants.
The study, led by the World Health Organization (WHO), shows that immunization is the single greatest
contribution of any health intervention to ensuring babies not only see their first birthdays but continue
leading healthy lives into adulthood.
Of the vaccines included in the study, the measles vaccination had the most significant impact on
reducing infant mortality, accounting for 60% of the lives saved due to immunization. This vaccine will
likely remain the top contributor to preventing deaths in the future.
Over the past 50 years, vaccination against 14 diseases (diphtheria, Haemophilus influenzae type B,
hepatitis B, Japanese encephalitis, measles, meningitis A, pertussis, invasive pneumococcal disease,
polio, rotavirus, rubella, tetanus, tuberculosis, and yellow fever) has contributed to reducing infant
deaths by 40% globally, and by more than 50% in the African Region.
“Vaccines are among the most powerful inventions in history, making once-feared diseases preventable,”
said WHO Director-General, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “Thanks to vaccines, smallpox has been
eradicated, polio is on the brink, and with the more recent development of vaccines against diseases like
malaria and cervical cancer, we are pushing back the frontiers of disease. With continued research,
investment and collaboration, we can save millions more lives today and in the next 50 years.”
The study found that for each life saved through immunization, an average of 66 years of full health were
gained – with a total of 10.2 billion full health years gained over the five decades. As the result of
vaccination against polio more than 20 million people are able to walk today who would otherwise have
been paralysed, and the world is on the verge of eradicating polio, once and for all.
These gains in childhood survival highlight the importance of protecting immunization progress in every
country of the world and accelerating efforts to reach the 67 million children who missed out on one or
more vaccines during the pandemic years.
Monumental efforts to increase access to vaccination over five decades
Released ahead of the 50
th anniversary of the Expanded Programme on Immunization (EPI) to take place
in May 2024, the study is the most comprehensive analysis of the programme’s global and regional
health impact over the past five decades.
Founded in 1974 by the World Health Assembly, EPI’s original goal was to vaccinate all children against
diphtheria, measles, pertussis, polio, tetanus, tuberculosis, as well as smallpox, the only human disease
ever eradicated. Today, the programme, now referred to as the Essential Programme on Immunization,
includes universal recommendations to vaccinate against 13 diseases, and context-specific
recommendations for another 17 diseases, extending the reach of immunization beyond children, to
adolescent and adults.
The study highlights that fewer than 5% of infants globally had access to routine immunization when EPI
was launched. Today, 84% of infants are protected with 3 doses of the vaccine against diphtheria, tetanus
and pertussis (DTP) – the global marker for immunization coverage.
Nearly 94 million of the estimated 154 million lives saved since 1974, were a result of protection by
measles vaccines. Yet, there were still 33 million children who missed a measles vaccine dose in 2022:
nearly 22 million missed their first dose and an additional 11 million missed their second dose.
Coverage of 95% or greater with 2 doses of measles-containing vaccine is needed to protect
communities from outbreaks. Currently, the global coverage rate of the first dose of measles vaccine is
83% and the second dose is 74%, contributing to a very high number of outbreaks across the world.
To increase immunization coverage, UNICEF, as one of the largest buyers of vaccines in the world,
procures more than 2 billion doses every year on behalf of countries and partners for reaching almost
half of the world’s children. It also works to distribute vaccines to the last mile, ensuring that even
remote and underserved communities have access to immunization services.
“Thanks to vaccinations, more children now survive and thrive past their fifth birthday than at any other
point in history,” said UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell. “This massive achievement is a credit
to the collective efforts of governments, partners, scientists, healthcare workers, civil society, volunteers
and parents themselves, all pulling in the same direction of keeping children safe from deadly diseases.
We must build on the momentum and ensure that every child, everywhere, has access to life-saving
In 2000, Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, which includes WHO, UNICEF and the Bill & Melinda Gates
Foundation (BMGF) as core founding members, was created to expand the impact of EPI and help the
poorest countries in the world increase coverage, benefit from new, life-saving vaccines and expand the
breadth of protection against an increasing number of vaccine-preventable diseases. This intensified
effort in the most vulnerable parts of the world has helped to save more lives and further promote
vaccine equity. Today, Gavi has helped protect a whole generation of children and now provides vaccines
against 20 infectious diseases, including the HPV vaccine and vaccines for outbreaks of measles, cholera,
yellow fever, Ebola and meningitis.
“Gavi was established to build on the partnership and progress made possible by EPI, intensifying focus
on protecting the most vulnerable around the world,” said Dr Sania Nishtar, CEO of Gavi, the Vaccine
Alliance. “In a little over two decades we have seen incredible progress – protecting more than a billion
children, helping halve childhood mortality in these countries, and providing billions in economic
benefits. Vaccines are truly the best investment we can make in ensuring everyone, no matter where
they are born, has an equal right to a healthy future: we must ensure these efforts are fully funded to
protect the progress made and help countries address current challenges of their immunization
Immunization programmes have become the bedrock of primary health services in communities and
countries due to their far reach and wide coverage. They provide not only an opportunity for vaccination
but also enable other life-saving care to be provided, including nutritional support, maternal tetanus
prevention, illness screenings and bed net distribution to protect families from diseases like malaria.
Since the study only covers the health impact of vaccination against 14 diseases, the number of lives
saved due to vaccination is a conservative estimate and not a full account of the life-saving impact of
vaccines. Societal, economic or educational impacts to health and wellbeing over the 50 years have also
contributed to further reductions in mortality. Today, there are vaccines to protect against more than 30
life-threatening diseases.
While the HPV vaccine, which protects against cervical cancer in adults, was not included in the study, it
is expected to prevent a high number of future deaths as countries work towards increasing
immunization targets aimed at eliminating cervical cancer by 2030. New vaccine introductions, such as
those for malaria, COVID-19, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and meningitis, as well as cholera and Ebola
vaccines used during outbreaks, will further save lives in the next 50 years.
Saving millions more is “Humanly Possible”
Global immunization programmes have shown what is humanly possible when many stakeholders,
including heads of state, regional and global health agencies, scientists, charities, aid agencies,
businesses, and communities work together.
Today, WHO, UNICEF, Gavi, and BMGF are unveiling “Humanly Possible”, a joint campaign, marking the
annual World Immunization Week, 24-30 April 2024. The worldwide communication campaign calls on
world leaders to advocate, support and fund vaccines and the immunization programmes that deliver
these lifesaving products – reaffirming their commitment to public health, while celebrating one of
humanity’s greatest achievements. The next 50 years of EPI will require not only reaching the children
missing out on vaccines, but protecting grandparents from influenza, mothers from tetanus, adolescents
from HPV and everyone from TB, and many other infectious diseases.
“It’s inspiring to see what vaccines have made possible over the last fifty years, thanks to the tireless
efforts of governments, global partners and health workers to make them more accessible to more
people,” said Dr Chris Elias, president of Global Development at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
“We cannot let this incredible progress falter. By continuing to invest in immunization, we can ensure
that every child – and every person – has the chance to live a healthy and productive life.”

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