Four Generations of Vaccines and Vaccine Preventable Diseases

This image that has been floating around the Internets conveys a lot of information, both about vaccines and vaccine-preventable diseases. And about the propaganda being pushed by the anti-vaccine movement.

Four generations of vaccines or vaccine misinformation?
Four generations of vaccines or vaccine misinformation?

A lot has changed over the last four generations…

Four Generations of Vaccine Preventable Diseases

In the United States, we have seen:

  • 1949 – the last smallpox outbreak
  • 1970s – the last outbreak of respiratory diphtheria
  • 1979 – endemic polio was declared eliminated
  • 1979 – smallpox was declared eradicated
  • 2000 – endemic measles was declared eliminated
  • 2000- neonatal tetanus was declared eliminated
  • 2004 – endemic rubella and congenital rubella syndrome were declared eliminated
  • 2009 – endemic respiratory diphtheria was declared eliminated

But there hasn’t been as much change as some folks think.

Four Generations of Vaccines

For one thing, kids don’t get 69 vaccines today as part of the recommended immunization schedule.

We don’t even have 69 vaccines available to give children today!

And while 200+ vaccines are being tested or are in the “pipeline,” very few will end up on the childhood immunization schedule. For example, many of these are therapeutic vaccines to treat cancer, allergies, and other conditions. And a lot of the other pipeline vaccines are for the same infectious disease, including 36 vaccines being tested to prevent or treat HIV and 25 to prevent the flu.

So how many vaccines do kids actually get?

Kids today routinely get 13 vaccines to protect them from 16 vaccine-preventable diseases. More than 13 vaccines are available, but some aren’t used in the United States and some are only used in special situations or for high risk kids.

Also, looking at historical immunization schedules, it is clear that folks in the 1940s and 50s didn’t get just two vaccines.

schedule1940s
A schedule of immunizations from a 1948 AAP Round Table Discussion on the Practical and Immunological Aspects of Pediatric Immunizations

Did some kids really get annual tetanus and typhoid vaccine boosters back then?

It’s possible, after all, by the 1930s, we did have individual vaccines against diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, typhoid, and smallpox.

This was followed by:

  • 1948 – the individual diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis vaccines become combined in a single DTP vaccine
  • 1955 – first polio vaccine – IPV
  • 1962 – change to oral polio vaccine – OPV
  • 1963-68 – first measles vaccines
  • 1967 – first mumps vaccine
  • 1969 – first rubella vaccine
  • 1971 – the individual measles, mumps, and rubella vaccines become combined in a single MMR vaccine
  • 1972 – routine vaccination with smallpox vaccines end in the US

The next big change was the addition of the Hib vaccine to the schedule in 1985.

“…for those trained in pediatrics in the 1970s, Hib (Haemophilus influenzae type b) was a horror.”

Walter Orenstein, MD

This was followed in 1989, with the addition of the hepatitis B vaccine, expanded age ranges for Hib, and the start of the switch to DTaP.

By 2000, kids got protection against 11 vaccine-preventable diseases, and routinely got the DTaP, MMR, IPV, Hib, chicken pox, Prevnar, hepatitis B, and Td vaccines.

Over the years, vaccines and protection against rotavirus, hepatitis A, meningococcal bacteria, HPV, and a yearly flu shot were added to the schedule.

We still haven’t gotten to 69 vaccines though.

Looking at the latest immunization schedule from the CDC and AAP, it should be clear that kids don't get 69 vaccines.
Looking at the latest immunization schedule from the CDC and AAP, it should be clear that kids don’t get 69 vaccines.

Kids today do routinely get:

  • 13 vaccines, including DTaP, IPV (polio), hepatitis B, Hib, Prevnar 13, rotavirus, MMR, Varivax (chicken pox), hepatitis A, Tdap, HPV, MCV 4 (meningococcal vaccine), and influenza
  • protection against 16 vaccine-preventable diseases, including diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, measles, mumps, rubella, polio, chicken pox, pneumococcal disease, hepatitis A, hepatitis B, meningococcal disease, HPV, rotavirus, Hib, and flu
  • about 28 doses of those vaccines by age two years
  • about 35 doses of those vaccines by age five years
  • as few as 23 individual shots by age five years if your child is getting combination vaccines, like Pediarix or Pentacel and Kinrix or Quadracel and Proquad
  • about 54 doses of those vaccines by age 18 years, with a third of that coming from yearly flu shots

How do you get a number like 69?

You can boost your count to make it look scarier by counting the DTaP, MMR, and Tdap vaccines as three separate vaccines each (even though they aren’t available as individual vaccines anymore). That quickly turns 8 shots into “24 vaccines.”

And that’s fine – as long as you are consistent. You can’t count them each as three vaccines today, but just as one when mom, grandma and great-grandma got them. If you are counting individual components of those vaccines, then great-grandma didn’t just get two vaccines, especially when you consider that she almost certainly would have gotten multiple doses of the DPT vaccine.

Paradoxically, even more antigens have been taken off the schedule with the removal of the smallpox and DPT vaccines. In 1960, kids got exposed to 3,217 different antigens from the smallpox, polio, diphtheria, tetanus and whole cell pertussis vaccines. All of today’s vaccines on the schedule expose them to just 177 different antigens!

Why does that matter? It is the antigens that are stimulating the immune system, so if you were really concerned about a number, that would be the one to look at.

More Vaccines Equal More Protection

Of course, the number of vaccines kids get and how they have increased over time is very important. But not in they way anti-vaccine folks like to think.

It is important because kids today are protected against and don’t have to worry about the consequences of many more life-threatening diseases, like bacterial meningitis (Hib and the pneumococcal bacteria), epiglottitis (Hib), liver failure and liver cancer (hepatitis B), severe dehydration (rotavirus), and cervical cancer (HPV), etc.

If you think kids get too many vaccines today, then you have no idea what things were like in the pre-vaccine era.

More on The Evolving Immunization Schedule

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