One hundred years ago, the Spanish flu wreaked havoc on humanity and posed a threat to the entire world. The highly-contagious and rapidly-fatal disease killed anywhere from 20 to 100 million people. This World Immunization Week, we are reflecting on the advances in vaccines that have changed the world since this outbreak a century ago, and the areas where progress is still needed.
The Spanish flu appeared in the fall of 1918 at the end of World War I, adding immense danger to both the battlefield and the home front. During the war, approximately 40% of U.S. Navy and 36% of U.S. Army members became infected. More American soldiers died from the virus than in combat during the Great War.
The disease didn’t only cause harm to the infected. Businesses, health departments, and even some farms were closed due to sick workers. The disease hindered society as a whole, creating harsh conditions and obstacles for everyone.
In this time of crisis, governments turned to scientists for solutions. Multiple vaccines were developed and tested, though the vaccines developed at the time we not effective at preventing people from getting the disease.
Vaccines have improved over the years, and protect against a number of deadly diseases — which may be part of the reason we haven’t seen such a deadly outbreak over the last century. For example, smallpox wreaked havoc on the world for centuries, killing up to 500 million people, before becoming the first disease to be completely eradicated by vaccines. Polio may also soon join the list of eradicated diseases thanks to an effective vaccination; currently, polio is 99.9% eradicated and only exists in three countries.
There is also hope that other diseases can meet the same fate of the Spanish flu in the decades to come. Though a vaccination currently exists for tuberculosis, scientists are working to create one that is more effective. Vaccinations for malaria and HIV/AIDS are also in development, each showing promising results so far.
Investing in the development and delivery of vaccines will continue to save countless people and could eventually put a stop to some of the world’s most deadly illnesses. Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, is doing just that by providing access to vaccines in the poorest countries to ensure that each child has the opportunity to live a healthy life. Organizations like Gavi are vital to ending preventable diseases for those in vulnerable situations.
As history has shown us, diseases don’t just infect people; whole communities suffer when its population faces illness. With hope, in one hundred years someone else will mark World Vaccination Week by recounting how we wiped out polio and some of the deadliest diseases of our generation with the help of vaccinations.
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